Best friends forever: Matt Kaeberlein on helping dogs live longer

Like to share?

Dr. Matt Kaeberlein and his dogs Chloe (Keeshond) and Dobby (German Shepherd). Photo credit: Tammi Kaeberlein

Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, an aging researcher and professor at the University of Washington, is the director of the Dog Aging Project. This two part program features a large-scale longitudinal study tracking thousands of volunteer pets across their lives in an effort to better understand the biology of aging, as well as an experimental study testing the promising geroprotector rapamycin in dogs for the first time. 

Dr. Kaeberlein, why did your team choose to run your trial on dogs? Can your findings be translated into humans?

There are several reasons why dogs make sense for this type of research. One obvious advantage is that we can understand the genetic and environmental factors that modulate healthy aging much more quickly in dogs compared to people. A longitudinal study of aging in people takes several decades or more, whereas in dogs, we can do the same thing in less than ten years. The same is true for an intervention study, such as our trial to test whether rapamycin can extend healthspan in dogs – we can know the answer in a few years rather than the 15-20 years a similarly designed study would take in humans.

Of course, another important reason is that people love their pets. So in addition to what we will learn about human aging and effective ways to improve human healthspan in the future, being able to improve the quality and quantity of dogs’ lives has intrinsic value in that it will also improve quality of life for the owners.

Almost certainly, many of our findings can be translated into humans. Dogs age very similarly to people and get most of the same age-related diseases that we do. Importantly, pet dogs share our environment, which is something that can’t be recapitulated in laboratory animals.

What insights can you share with us from the first phase of the recently completed rapamycin intervention trial? And what comes next?

The first phase showed that ten weeks of low-dose rapamycin does not induce any significant side effects or changes in blood chemistry in middle-aged, otherwise healthy dogs, and we had an indication of improved cardiac function in the rapamycin treated dogs as measured by echocardiography. The next phase will be a one year study which was recently funded by a generous donation from the Donner Foundation. That study will enroll 50 middle-aged dogs and look at both cardiac and cognitive function. We hope to follow that up with a five year study to really address the extent to which rapamycin can delay multiple diseases and declines in function associated with aging.

Can you tell us a bit about the upcoming longitudinal study?

Although the longitudinal study has not officially started yet, owners can nominate their dogs for the study on our website. We were hoping to start enrolling dogs into this study in October of 2016, but we found out recently that our NIA grant that would allow us to do so was not selected for funding, so we are currently reevaluating our timeline for this project. We will likely start accepting survey information and vet records within the next few months, but we will not be able to perform any detailed studies until we have grant funding.

The information collected will be a combination of (1) information provided through a comprehensive owner survey about diet, environment, exercise, etc., (2) veterinary records, (3) blood samples (blood chemistry, metabolomics), (4) DNA sequencing/genotyping, (5) fecal microbiome, and other parameters, (6) cognitive function, (7) activity (GPS tracking in some cases), and other parameters of health.

We hope to enroll more than 10,000 dogs into the larger longitudinal study, with up to 1000 dogs receiving the more comprehensive panel of assessments.

How can people enroll their dogs in the studies or make a donation to the project?

Owners can nominate their dog to participate in the Dog Aging Project through our website www.dogagingproject.com. Donations can also be made through the website by clicking on the “donate” icon which will take you to the University of Washington Foundation link for the dedicated Dog Aging Project fund. All donations are tax-deductible in the United States and 100% of the funds go to the Dog Aging Project.

We thank Dr. Matt Kaeberlein for the interview.

Mariana Cerdeira

Mariana Cerdeira is a PhD fellow at the Charité in Berlin working on molecular stroke research. She is passionate about science communication and public outreach. Holding a double Master's degree in Neuroscience from the Universities of Göttingen and Bordeaux, she is a regular contributor to Geroscience and one of the editors of the CNS Newsletter.