The functions of certain genes are very similar in dogs and humans, according to Hiatt. “What we learn from pets may also be applicable to humans,” he said.
One of many questions the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study aims to address is how environmental chemicals may interact with genes in a breed that is susceptible to health problems. An estimated 60 percent of golden retrievers die from cancer, according to the Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit group that is funding the study. As a breed, they may be genetically susceptible, regardless of what chemicals they may have been exposed to.
The nationwide study will enroll 3,000 young golden retrievers and follow them through their entire lives. Page, one of the lead investigators, likens it to the Nurse’s Health Study, one of the longest running women’s health studies in the country.
“The opportunity will be quite seminal and transformative in terms of exposure science, because it will offer a new set of data with which to evaluate similarities with human exposure data,” Page said.
This research also may help experts develop treatments for diseases.
“We can cure anything in a mouse, but so many times new drugs fail miserably when taken straight from lab animals to human trials,” said Heather Wilson-Robles, a veterinary oncologist at Texas A&M University.
Dogs and cats develop diseases spontaneously for many of the same reasons people do, which means experts can predict from pets how a new drug may act in humans. “Mouse models are really important in the development of new treatments, but we are skipping a step when we take a drug from lab animals to humans without first looking to our veterinary patients,” Wilson-Robles said.
In Reggie’s case, Riordan and her vet looked first to human studies to form a treatment plan. He received chemotherapy and experimental high-dose vitamin C injections, a treatment that Riordan had uncovered while researching options for her father. “We thought if it worked in humans, it might work for dogs,” she said.
In February, less than two months after being diagnosed with canine lymphoma, Reggie died.
Riordan wasn’t aware of the link between lawn-care products and lymphoma in dogs, but, she said, “we were always really careful about chemicals. We don’t use pesticides in our yard or a lot of chemicals in the house.”
While Riordan hopes researchers may one day be able to prevent dogs like Reggie from getting cancer, she knows tragedy comes with pet ownership. “We love them so much that even if they don’t die of cancer, they will ultimately break our hearts,” she said.
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.