Medical studies using canines are nothing new. For decades they have been conducted for the benefit of both dogs and humans. Back in the 1990s, it was discovered that by studying Doberman pinschers scientists were able to isolate the gene that causes the neurological sleep disorder known as narcolepsy, which also afflicts human beings. By examining the DNA of Doberman pups, geneticist Emmanuel Mignot of the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine and other specialists were able to identify the gene responsible for the disorder in human DNA and make inroads toward treatments. This discovery was just the tip of the medical iceberg.
Canine Genetic Studies
Ferreting out disease-causing genes is a lot easier with dogs than in people, because with dogs there are far fewer genetic variations for researchers to wade through. For example, the DNA of humans contains roughly 1 million genetic markers, whereas a dog breed has only about 170,000. To put it into perspective, this means that scientists would require between 400 and 600 dogs in order to carry out a genetic study of a canine disease. Due to selective breeding, there is considered to be greater uniformity in dog DNA, making it relatively straightforward for geneticists to locate aberrations. The same study in human beings, however, would require 100 times more dogs.
Dog Breeds Help Advance Medical Science
With this knowledge under their belts, researchers from Massachusetts to Arizona have begun studying a variety of medical conditions that include things like Alzheimer’s, a rare form of color blindness, certain bone cancers, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), obesity, hearing loss and autism just by examining the DNA of greyhounds, German shepherds, rottweilers, Irish wolfhounds and other dog breeds. Some breeds of dogs are known to have a higher prevalence of certain diseases, such as cancer in golden retrievers, epilepsy in beagles and autoimmune disorders in huskies. While it is sad for the dog, this higher prevalence in disease rate actually assists in narrowing down the search for mutated genes even further.
Growing Acceptance in Canine Research
According to Will Hendricks, an assistant professor in the Integrated Cancer Genomics Division of the Translational Genomics Research Institute in Phoenix, there is “absolutely growing interest” and “acceptance” that studying diseases in dogs can “help us understand human diseases.” Statistics from the Humane Society show that nearly 45 percent of households in the U.S. have at least one dog residing within them. From these stats, we can conclude that the pet dog population is approximately 77.8 million animals. As far as scientists are concerned, that’s a massive pool of potential research subjects that live and thrive in what would be considered relatively controlled environments.
Crowd Sourcing Dog DNA
Due to this seemingly endless control pool, canine geneticists are looking to take advantage of the situation by attempting to harness what they’re calling citizen science in an effort to crowd source dog DNA. Darwin’s Dogs, which is part of the Broad Institute’s research endeavor, posted a series of questionnaires on its website, back in October of 2015, in hopes of getting responses to 10 questions and DNA samples from 5,000 dog owners within a few years. As of June, dog owners had answered over 616,000 questions and volunteered almost 7,000 pets for the project. The overwhelming response gives them hope that they’ll be able to unlock the mysteries of both human and animal diseases that much quicker.