Professor’s quest for a healthier and long life for dogs is the driving force behind the Dog Aging Project
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Audrey Ruple loves Great Danes so much that while she was in central Texas on a family vacation in 2012, she made the decision to buy another.
“We were lucky to have a vehicle large enough for an extra passenger,” says Ruple, recalling how Bitzer, a purebred Great Dane who eventually grew to 140 pounds, came to live with her family.
Despite the rocky journey back to Colorado, he became quite gentle and the go-to animal for hugs and chuckles.
“He was the best dog. He was my heart dog, ”says Ruple.
Bitzer recently passed away after living a great life. He was almost 8 ½ years old.
“He was old for a Great Dane, but far too young for a dog to die,” said Ruple, assistant professor of public health and veterinary epidemiologist. She is researching the lifespan of dogs through the Dog Aging Project.
Being a licensed veterinarian who knows the ins and outs of animal health doesn’t make the loss any easier.
“The old idea of how ‘the bigger the dog, the shorter the lifespan’ is correct in this case. We are still not sure why that is, ”says Ruple. “Dogs break the rule of all other mammal species. Most mammal species, the bigger you are, the longer you live. That is why we are doing this research with the Dog Aging Project. “
Bitzer had one serious medical problem: osteosarcoma.
Ruple has worked with numerous scientists, researchers and veterinary oncologists to study osteosarcoma in dogs as they are the perfect translational model for osteosarcoma in humans.
“Dogs and humans develop the same type of osteosarcoma. It’s the same at the molecular level, ”says Ruple. “When we look at an osteosarcoma in a dog, we can’t tell the difference between that and an osteosarcoma in a human.”
Osteosarcoma is the most common bone tumor in dogs, but is considered a rare disease in humans. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1,000 new cases are diagnosed in humans every year, and half of them are children, teens, or young adults.
Ruple says osteosarcoma is difficult to study in humans because researchers cannot develop randomized control studies because they don’t have enough people to enroll.
Tyler Trent, a Purdue graduate and superfan who died on January 1, 2019, had osteosarcoma. Trent donated his cancer cells for further cancer research.
“The group most affected by osteosarcoma are fast-growing teenagers. In dog populations, we find osteosarcoma in large breed dogs, which are fast-growing mammals, ”said Ruple, an associate faculty member of the Purdue University Center for Cancer Research. “We think there is something in the growth rate that causes cancer to form. It makes sense that humans and dogs have similar cancers, because we share a tremendous amount of genetic sequence, and cancers arise from our own cells. “
Because of that shared genetic sequence, cancer treatments that have been developed and are successful in dogs are often adapted for use in humans.
The importance of collaboration and community science
When Ruple began her veterinary epidemiological studies, she knew she wanted to explore translational and preventive medicine, cancer outcomes, and infection control in dogs and humans. She has studied zoonotic diseases – diseases that can be transmitted between humans and animals.
“My goal was to look at human and animal health and disease and ask, ‘How do we prevent disease from occurring?’” She says.
She was contacted by Daniel Promislow and Dr. Kate Creevy of the Dog Aging Project, who wanted to involve her in the design for the longitudinal study, which was ultimately funded by the National Institutes of Health. The project investigates biological and environmental determinants of aging in dogs.
“The Dog Aging Project and the epidemiological work I do is about the possibility of helping people and animals live healthier lives for a longer period of time. That is really convincing to me. Many diseases we see in dogs are the same as those in our children, ”says Ruple. “Childhood illness has long-term consequences. If they have cancer – even if they are cured or treated for remission – those chemotherapeutic agents and surgeries that we use to treat them have a lifelong impact. They lead lives that may be a little less than perfect. “
Currently, the Dog Aging Project has nearly 30,000 dogs – 727 from Indiana – whose owners have completed full enrollment, including completing the questionnaire and uploading complete veterinary medical records.
The top five locations for Indiana registered participants are Indianapolis (Marion County), Lafayette (Tippecanoe County), Bloomington (Monroe County), Muncie (Delaware County), and Fort Wayne (Allen County). The top five registered Indiana breeds are Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, German Shepherd, Dachshund, and Beagle.
The organizers hope to get additional dog breeds to make the study more complete:
Large breed dogs weighing 70-100 pounds, especially breeds other than Labradors, Golden Retrievers, and German Shepherds (the most common breeds in the US). Large breed dogs weighing more than 100 pounds such as Great Danes, Wolfhounds, Mastiffs. Canine dogs, spaniels, pointers, terriers, bulldogs and pit bulls (purebred and mixed breeds). Working dogs, such as herding, K-9, service, agility, and mushing dogs.
Organizers are also looking for dogs from rural areas, small towns and large cities. Many people adopt animals from shelters or get a puppy during the COVID-19 pandemic, and puppy participants are especially beneficial to the project because researchers can monitor the dogs throughout their lives.
Ruple says it’s important for a diversity of dog owners to participate in health so that researchers and scientists can study health outcomes of underrepresented minorities.
To participate in the Dog Aging Project, owners nominate a dog (one per household) at DogAgingProject.org. After this, they are invited to set up a personal research portal where they complete scientific surveys on their dog and upload veterinary data.
“What we can learn from dogs is very important,” says Ruple. “They really are our best friends.”
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Author: Matthew Oates, 765-496-2571, email@example.com, @mo_oates
Sources: Audrey Ruple, 765-496-0414, firstname.lastname@example.org, @audreyruple
Amber Keyser, Dog Aging Project
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Researchers are looking for a helping paw for research into dog aging
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