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Dogs, Our Valuable Partners in Science

The Caninologist

Dogs are the new cuddle-bunnies of medical research.

Scientists love dogs. That’s because dogs and other companion animals share not only living quarters with people, but also our microbiology and chronic diseases. And the more expensive and cutting-edge the science gets, the more researchers value pets as patients and veterinarians as collaborators in search of common cures. Who can afford to go it alone?

“Dogs are similar to humans in so many ways,” said Dr. Dori Borjesson, professor at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine who also serves as director of the UC Davis Veterinary Institute for Regenerative Cures, a leading center of stem cell research.

Diet, living environment, chronic disease risks, genetic code—some dogs even share our couches and arm chairs. Dogs aren’t exactly like people, of course, and in my family, the dog is the only one who’s eaten a tennis ball, as far as we know.

But we have more in common than you might realize.

“If the person smokes, essentially the dog smokes, too,” Borjesson said during a telephone interview. “We encounter similar toxins, breathe the same air, drink similar water, swim in the same places.”

Dogs also have that cuddle factor going for them, unlike your typical nematode worm or fruit fly.

That’s a serious advantage for those running long-term observational studies. Scientists want to know their precious test subjects will be well tended after an experimental—and expensive—last-resort treatment. So labs not only love dogs, they love people who love dogs, especially an attentive animal lover of means willing to put up with the monitoring required for long-term studies.

And long-term can be pretty long in a canine, running around for years with essentially the same, if doggier, genetic machinery that we have.

They also naturally develop the same or very similar chronic degenerative diseases. Often enough, they get sick for the same reasons we do: Not enough exercise, unhealthy diet, insufficient early detection.

No laboratory artifice is needed to mimic disease pathways with so many canine cases of cancer and heart disease.

Borjesson and her colleagues assemble multidisciplinary “disease teams” to test novel treatments on real disease targets where nothing else has worked. They meld animal and human research agendas. They hope results benefit all species involved.

One potential goal is to win public attention when the research seems to go well. So it can’t hurt to have a couple of cute pooches on the disease team.

In the latest example, the Davis researchers recruited Darla and Spanky, sibling bulldogs a few months old, plucked from troubled lives in Southern California.

They were suffering from the debilitating symptoms of spina bifida, an inherited condition involving incomplete closure of the spinal column during early development. About 1,500 to 2,000 children are born in the United States with the condition each year. The number of canine cases is unknown.

Research clinicians used a bioengineered scaffolding to support placenta-derived stem cells surgically implanted along the dogs’ spinal columns. Dr. Diana Farmer, professor and chief of surgery at the UC Davis School of Medicine, developed the surgical techniques for human patients. Dr. Beverly Sturges, professor of neurosurgery at the nearby Davis veterinary hospital, decided to try it out in the dogs.

Darla and Spanky were first in line. They continue to do well, Borjesson said, several months following the surgery. They still need to wear diapers due to their hind-quarter control issues. They aren’t exactly running wind sprints.

But they looked happy enough, bouncing around in the publicity video Davis happily shared when the news came out.

It’s too soon to be sure the new procedure will move into mainstream medicine, and it seems unlikely very many pet owners will fork over what it might cost for such an elaborate treatment, knowing that even if it works, the dog may still never be potty trainable.

For those concerned about dog health, there’s little option but hope for the best.

Spina bifida, in humans, can be treated with a difficult surgery in utero. That ain’t gonna happen if you are a dog. Typically, pups are put down at birth if symptoms are apparent.

So animals otherwise facing euthanasia get another chance with an experimental treatment. Even if it doesn’t work, scientists gain from the exercise, maybe guiding them to a better approach before a lot of time and human lives are put at risk.

In medical research, Borjesson said, “if you fail, you like to fail early.”

As for the bulldogs, their lifestyles are a lot more pleasant than they were before they became science celebrities. With all the attention, they managed to get adopted and moved to a new home in New Mexico.


Carl T. Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, is a longtime science reporter and journalism instructor who is allergic to cats. He lives in the Bayview neighborhood in San Francisco where he and some business partners will soon be opening a dog-friendly cafe.


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