Picture a border collie herding sheep, enacting its natural impulse. Might the trait bred into the dog for centuries provide a clue to the cause of human addiction?
Or, imagine a hunting dog that points out its master’s prey. Could a genetic study of the animal unleash insights into the human mind?
A new Center for Canine Health and Performance at Van Andel Institute is using dog DNA to learn more about human diseases. The Grand Rapids lab and its research partners have announced a 2-year, $4.3 million federal grant to expand the scope of the study that may prove dogs are both man’s best friend and his physician’s.
“Everything you can do in human genetics, you can do in dog genetics,” said Mark Neff, director of the center created in partnership with the Van Andel-affiliated Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, in Phoenix. “The two mutually inform one another and mutually benefit one another. Translating between is seamless.
“By studying the DNA of canines, we expect to more quickly discover the genomic causes of disease and more quickly find ways to better treat dogs and people.”
Because dog breeds have less genetic diversity than humans, who are relative mutts, it is easier to identify particular genes that cause certain diseases, Neff said. Finding cancer-causing canine genes in dogs may help pinpoint causes of human cancers and develop new treatment drugs.
For example, Van Andel researchers since 2008, as part of a Canine Hereditary Cancer Consortium, have been studying hemangiosarcoma, a cancer of the blood vessels, in Clumber spaniels. Though common in some dog breeds, the disease is rare in humans and has no effective treatment.
“A patient who draws that card, there’s no solution for that. There’s not a large enough sample size (for effective research),” Neff said. “But you can learn about the human cancer, which is rare, by studying the dog cancer, which is common.
“All you need is that DNA sample to make that connection.”
While mice live at Van Andel, there are no dogs on site. DNA comes from saliva — typically a cheek swab or cup of drool — or blood and tumor samples donated voluntarily by veterinarians, breeders and dog owners from around the country.
Researchers are analyzing the canine DNA, and the findings could apply to human diagnostics and treatment. But, to throw the dog a bone, they also could indicate if a dog carries a defective, cancer-causing gene.
“The canines are not just a through-put for the end product” of human study, said Roe Froman, a longtime local veterinarian who joined VAI last fall as a senior veterinary research scientist. “We’re not just using the dogs to help the people. We’re also using the dogs to help other dogs.
“The more we can help to develop earlier diagnostics and better treatment protocols, those are huge benefits to the dog people.”
The faster samples can be accumulated, the faster research can progress, said Froman, president of the Clumber Spaniel Health Foundation. The owner of any dog with cancer can call Froman at 234-5556 to learn about donating canine DNA.
With the grant, which is supplemented by $500,000 each from PetSmart and Hill’s Pet Nutrition, the consortium of several organizations including the National Cancer Institute, University of Pennsylvania and Michigan State University will study other cancers that originate in connective tissues such as bone, cartilage and fat: osteosarcoma, oral melanoma, malignant histiocytosis and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Researchers will look at as many as 20 dog breeds using some of the same tools deployed in human study, then work with pharmaceutical companies to develop treatments.
“We can use the exact same technology for canines,” said Jeffrey Trent, president and research director for VAI and TGen. “This is an important way to leverage biology to help people and at the same time help our canine friends.”
Eventually, the program also aims to study neurological and behavioral disorders as well as other conditions that may relate to human conditions. For example, studying dogs that suffer hearing loss may put researchers on a fast-track to finding keys to deafness in the muddled human genome.
Unwittingly, a dog’s fine-tuned gene pool may breed a cure for human disease.
“(Dog breeders) are the Mendels and Darwins of today,” Neff said. “My job is to go out and learn from them.”
Article by http://www.mlive.com/