Researchers look to dogs to study human disease

The DNA of dogs may offer clues about human conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who have launched a major study of canine genetics, behavior and personality.

The team, led by Elinor Karlsson, a professor in the bioinformatics and integrative biology program, hopes that studying a large number of diverse breeds and mixed-breed dogs will yield more insight into the genetic underpinnings of certain traits and illnesses in dogs, and one day lead to improved medical treatments for humans. Humans and canines share almost all the same genes and suffer from many of the same diseases.

Other scientists, including Brian Hare at Duke University, are focusing on pets and pet owners, investigating canine cognition to learn more about how both dogs and humans think and learn. Dogs are a better natural model for some human diseases than mice or even primates because they live with people, Dr. Karlsson says.

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“Compared to lab mice, with dogs they’re getting diseases within their natural life span, they’re exposed to the same pollutants in the environment” as humans, she says. Previous canine studies conducted by other scientists have shed light on human diseases like osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, as well as the sleep disorder narcolepsy and a neurological condition, epilepsy.

With osteosarcoma, the most common type of bone cancer in children and one that frequently strikes certain dog breeds, researchers have discovered that tumors in dogs and children are virtually indistinguishable. The tumors share similarities in their location, development of chemotherapy-resistant growths and altered functioning of certain proteins, making dogs a good animal model of the disease. Collecting more specimens from dogs could lead to progress in identifying tumor targets and new cancer drugs in dogs as well as in children, some scientists say.

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