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6 Ways Dog DNA Is Helping Humans

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A female scientist wearing a white lab coat looks into a microscope in the laboratory.

When the news arrived that dog DNA testing would be made available, there was a mix of reactions. Some people were angry, as communities were using it to see if pooches had any banned breeds in their ancestry. Some people were happy with the possibility of determining the appropriate disease prevention for their fur baby. Still, some others were just curious as to what would show up in their mutt’s background.

Since humans and dogs share 84 percent of their DNA, whatever your initial reaction to dog DNA testing, it is now evident that it’s helping humans in a big way. I wasn’t one of the original adopters to jump into analyzing my dogs’ genetics when the first DNA test kits appeared, but after companies like Embark took charge on improving the approach and making it more user-friendly, I could no longer stay away. I had to test it out.

Today, I see major benefits to ensuring progress in this field. This is thanks to companies like Embark that continue to invest in studying canine genetics. DNA testing helps our dogs by way of identifying genetic health risks for preventable diseases, helping our companion animals to live longer. It also provides major benefits for humans.

Here are six of the most inspiring ways that the study of canine genetics is helping humans:

1. Autoimmune disease 

People living with multiple sclerosis, lupus, and Type 1 diabetes have lives that are shaped and altered by these diseases. The University of Melbourne Faculty of Veterinary Science is testing dogs that have autoimmune diseases. They’re hoping to isolate not only the genes that cause autoimmune disorders, but also which genes may offer immunity to these disorders. By then studying patterns in these genes, scientists may develop treatments for humans to prevent or better manage these illnesses.

2. Eye health

Many diseases of the eye affect both dogs and humans, like retinitis pigmentosa and cataracts. Any advances on either side of the board will benefit the patients on the other side. In fact, scientists are in the early testing phases of restoring sight in humans. They are doing this with retinitis pigmentosa using gene therapy discovered, in part, by testing canine genes. The first round of testing showed positive results in some patients. Therefore, the company is ready to move forward with the second phase of clinical testing.

3. Mental health

Most dogs have an innate instinct to turn to humans for help. When presented with a problem they can’t solve, some dogs will keep trying, while others look to a nearby human for a solution. By surveying the genes of both dogs and humans, scientists found two genetic markers in dogs that are also linked to human behavioral conditions like autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD. Now, by studying gene therapy, scientists can develop therapies that will benefit humans living with mental health disorders.

4. Cancer

As in people, cancer numbers in dogs are on the rise. To add to the similarities, some cancers in dogs are identical at the molecular level to some cancers in people. The results of drug trials in dogs are highly predictive of what the results will be in humans. An added bonus is that data collected in canine studies can be used to rapidly get information to the FDA. This results in a faster process time for applications for human trials. In fact, in 2017, a clinical trial for children with life-threatening cancers was fast-tracked because of the work already done on humankind’s best friend.

5. Epilepsy

While dogs from lots of different breeds can suffer from epilepsy, some breeds are more prone to it than others. Scientists have found that pups from Miniature Wire-Haired Dachshunds and those from the breed Lagotto Romagnolo have two different underlying genetic factors contributing to this disease. Another study using Rhodesian Ridgebacks yielded truly groundbreaking work. That study pinpointed a gene that has never been considered as a marker for epilepsy before.

6. Birt-Hogg-Dubé Syndrome

This genetic disorder occurs in humans. It causes non-cancerous skin growths, lung cysts, and kidney tumors that can be both benign or cancerous. It has been discovered that the gene that causes Birt-Hogg-Dubé Syndrome in humans also causes a similar disease, called RCND, in German Shepherds. The gene codes for a protein called folliculin. Scientists associate this protein with the cause of disease in both human and canine patients. The study helped to determine different versions of the gene, one of which may directly contribute to Birt-Hogg-Dubé Syndrome.

Why dogs?

After all the studies using human DNA and the studies involving mice and other lab animals, why are canine DNA studies so important? Well, there are a few reasons why the dog studies yield more advances in the human medical field.

  • Dogs have undergone centuries of selective breeding. While people were breeding dogs for desired characteristics in appearance and behavior, they were also inadvertently breeding in genetic diseases. This inbreeding creates a palette of DNA that is easier to wade through.
  • Humans cannot be easily observed in a laboratory setting, especially for things involving behavior. On the other hand, dogs can be put in a group with other dogs, with people, or with a mix of both while still retaining most of their personality. These experiments yield truer responses than if they were done with human subjects.
  • We can study dogs because of their lifespan (averaging 7 to 15 years depending on breed). We could never do this with lab rats or humans. With lab animals, scientists must create the disease by injecting it into the animals being studied. With humans, it may be late in life before an illness activates. Even if the disease presents early, it takes years to monitor progression and changes. With pups, a disease can be monitored from birth to death in a naturally occurring setting and in a relatively short amount of time.
  • Humans are more closely related to dogs than any other lab animal except monkeys. It takes less time to convert dog studies to human results because of this greater similarity. The more accurate the side effects and benefits are predicted, the better prepared the facilitators are to handle anything that may come up in human trials.

The future of dog DNA

Scientists are currently making advances in human health from the study of canine DNA in these areas, to name a few. With dog DNA, there is a smaller privacy risk than with human DNA. This means there is a broader field of sequences to study. With Embark being the world leader in canine genetics, taking charge to lead this new and exciting industry, and encouraging pet owners to contribute to further advancement in the field—we are in good hands.

If you would like to donate your dog’s DNA to help fight human illness, there are several facilities that accept them, including the Cornell Veterinary Biobank. Those who submit their dog’s DNA to the Cornell Veterinary Biobank can receive a discount on an Embark kit.

You can also email the University of Melbourne Veterinary Clinic and Hospital or fill out an application for the Canine Health Information Center. If you don’t have a pet, but still would like to support the cause, you can make a monetary donation to organizations working to use dog DNA to fight human diseases.

This article was originally contributed Samantha Randall at topdogtips.com.

Samantha Randall Contributor

Samantha Randall is a writer at Top Dog Tips. Samantha’s biggest passion in life is spending time with her Boxer dogs. After she rescued her first Boxer in 2004, Samantha fell in love with the breed and has continued to rescue three other Boxers since then. She enjoys hiking and swimming with her Boxers, Maddie and Chloe.

Read more about Samantha Randall

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