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The Art of Extending Life

Show Notes

The Dog Aging Project is a groundbreaking initiative that seeks to unravel the mysteries of aging in dogs and, by extension, gain insights into the aging process in humans. Launched in 2018, this collaborative effort involves researchers from various institutions, including the University of Washington School of Medicine and Texas A&M University. The project is designed to be the most extensive study of canine aging, with the aim of improving the health and well-being of both dogs and humans.

At the heart of the Dog Aging Project is a longitudinal study that follows the lives of thousands of dogs over several years. By collecting comprehensive data on various aspects of a dog’s life, including genetics, lifestyle and environment, researchers hope to identify factors that contribute to longevity and healthy aging. The ultimate goal is to develop interventions and treatments that can enhance the quality of life for both aging dogs and aging humans.

One key aspect of the project is the inclusion of citizen scientists—dog owners who actively participate by providing information about their pets. This crowdsourced approach not only facilitates data collection on a massive scale but also fosters a sense of community among dog owners who share a common interest in understanding and improving the aging process for their furry companions.

Dr. Kate Illing, one of the research veterinarians with the project—and who hails from my favorite city in the whole wide world, Calgary, Alberta—joins us today to chat about the Dog Aging Project and in particular the research she’s doing on rapamycin.

What to Listen For

4:24 Kate’s journey from engineering to veterinary medicine
7:51 The mission behind the Dog Aging Project
15:06 Kate’s research into anti-aging drug rapamyacin
19:01 Who can enroll in the Dog Aging Project

Sign Up for the Dog Aging Project

Enroll Your Dog
Find DAP on Instagram

Transcript

Angela

Good morning, Dr. Kate Illing. How are you today?  

Kate

I’m doing very well thank you and yourself.

Angela  

I’m really good. I wish it would stop raining here. But it’s the nature of November where I live.

Kate 

It’s completely the opposite. Here in Texas, we’ve been having some rainy days, but it’s blue skies and warm most every day, at least by my standards.

Angela  

Little bit jealous, I need to go out and get some hiking done with my dog. So tell us a little bit about who you are. And then we’ll get stuck into the Dog Aging Project, which is why you’re here.

Kate 

OK. Well, for a little bit about myself. I’m Dr. Kate Illing. I am an early career veterinarian, I graduated from the University of Saskatchewan. I spent my first year out of school doing a rotating internship in my hometown of Calgary, Alberta, which is a very, very beautiful place. And then after that, I just decided I wanted to get a little bit more research experience. And I heard about the Dog Aging Project and was offered an opportunity here. So now I work in research, and helping with clinical studies and analyzing data here at the Dog Aging Project.

Angela  

Now I creeped you a little bit on LinkedIn and saw that you actually started in nanotechnology engineering.

Kate 

Oh my goodness, that’s really a sign to me that I need to update my LinkedIn. But yes.  

Angela

And what took you away from that and into animal science?

Kate 

Yes. So in my previous life, I was in engineering, I decided, well, I found that in the day to day of engineering, especially sort of r&d focused engineering, I was doing a lot of work on the computer has done a lot of work in labs, and a lot of my research, or things that were very experimental, that would take a lot of time to see results. And I found that I really missed people, I really missed having face to face contact. And I’m the sort of person who’s motivated by working on things that are really applicable and being able to see the results of my work. And I found that medicine, both human and animal medicine is an area that’s honestly not that different from engineering where I could use the same skills that brought me to engineering and learning how a system works, how to study that system, how to manipulate that system, even though things in biology are a lot more squishy, a lot less cut and dried than the world of machines. But I spent a couple years doing some biology studying. And then I decided I wanted to do veterinary medicine because I find animals really, really fascinating. And there’s a lot of things about animals that can help us learn about people. And so that’s how I got into veterinary medicine.

Angela

Did you grow up around animals?

Kate 

Same as a lot of other people I grew up sort of outside the city and just really close to Calgary, Alberta. So we were surrounded by a lot of people’s hobby farms and ranches. I grew up in a house with a really big yard and we had several dogs growing up that made a pretty big impact on me. That’s definitely some of my fondest memories is just carrying around the yard with our with our boxer dog.

Angela  

Oh, you have to say his name his or her name and tell us a good story about her because that’s what we’re all about.

Kate 

A good story. Okay. Ah, let me think. His name is Joe. His name was Joey. He was a fawn colored boxer. Very, very classic boxer personality, very boisterous, very playful. He was very good at stealing things that he shouldn’t get into. He would … if you were eating a piece of watermelon or my little sister was eating a piece of watermelon, he would try to sneak up behind her and just very slowly open his mouth and steal it out of out of her hand. And even a few years after he passed away, we were cleaning up the house getting ready to move … we moved our electric piano from the corner and we found a stash of soap, of bar soap that he had been stealing and hiding there because that was one of his favorite things to do as well as to eat and steal soap.

Angela  

That’s a great memory to have. Wow, your face lit up when you started talking about that, too.

Kate

Yeah, he was a really, really good dog. That’s definitely a fond memory.

Angela  

So now, what is the Dog Aging Project? And how did you get attached to it?

Kate 

Of course. So, the dog aging product is one of the largest research studies of dogs that is going on right now. It’s what we call a community science project. So every single dog owner who decides to participate in our study is our data collector and our researcher essentially. So we collect nominations from dogs all over all over across the United States, and are interested owners help us by filling out comprehensive surveys on their dogs at least once a year, that give us information on their health status. Their preventative care and wellness measures, their environment, their lifestyle, their physical activity, and their behavior. And if we collect data on all of these in virtual dogs longitudinally, we hope that that’ll give us a better picture and allow us to study the biological and environmental influences on healthy canine aging. The concept that we’re most interested in at the Dog Aging Project is, in addition to lifespan, something that we call health span, which is the length of an animal’s life that is free from disease. So healthy, good quality life. Our end goal is, in a nutshell, is to be able to maximize health span of dogs. So their … the length of their life where they’re free of disease, and living a good, happy quality of life.

Angela  

Well, that’s pretty cool. Because if you can get dogs to live longer, we’ll have to suffer through a lot less grief in our lives over them, won’t we.

Kate 

Yes, that’s definitely true. Part of our motivation is none of us ever really feel like we got enough time with our dogs. So anything that we’re able to find out that’ll help us in that cause, help us to get more time with our loved ones is, I think a pretty worthy pursuit.

Angela  

Yeah. What kind of groundbreaking stuff have you witnessed coming out of the Dog Aging Project so far?

Kate 

Well, we’re definitely in the early stages of our study, where the most powerful part of our study will be when we have multiple years from the same dog, so that we can track what we’d say longitudinally, the process of canine aging, and that’ll give us sort of the strongest basis to infer causality and risk factors. But some of the stuff that we’ve been studying recently, they recently published a paper, studying the development, reporting on the development of canine cognitive dysfunction.

Not all people are aware, but just like people, dogs do get experience declines and their cognitive function as they age. And it follows a disease course and a pathogenesis that we believe is pretty similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans. So one of our survey instruments is designed to collect information on the cognitive well-being of our dogs. And one thing that we were able to find, just looking at the … just looking at a sort of a cross section of dogs who have high scores with that data, is that it seems to be associated with … sorry … that canine cognitive dysfunction is associated with decreased physical activity. So that’s raised the question for us, is physical activity associated with preventing or slowing the progression of canine cognitive dysfunction. So it raises a research question that we’d like to design a better way to solve.

Angela  

Can what we learn through the study of canines apply to human health medicine, because I don’t think our systems are remarkably different?

Kate 

That’s another part of the philosophy of the Dog Aging Project. There’s a lot of similarities between dogs and people and a lot of ways that what we learned might be applied to people. Like I already mentioned that dogs age more rapidly than people so we’re able to study things a lot faster on a different times. We also know that dogs get a lot of the same diseases that people do, they experience cognitive decline, they can get diabetes, they can get cancer. And all of those things will happen in a faster time scale than in people. The other very important thing is that dogs share our environment. So if people are looking at the effects of pollution on health, or even things like sunlight or elevation or region in the country, those are all things that we can study in dogs as well to learn about people.

Angela  

Yeah, Bella is a member. 

Kate 

Oh fantastic, I’m very happy to talk to one of our DAP Pack members, you should have told me that at the beginning.

Angela  

I haven’t finished all of my surveys yet, but I wanted to dive in to make sure that I knew what it looked like from the inside. And the questions are super simple to answer. And it’s really just about how you feed your dog and how you participate with your dog in life activities and, and how much activity she gets and that kind of stuff. So it’s super easy to be a part of. Are there benefits to the individual dog owner to being a part of it and contributing?

Kate 

A lot of people report that they feel a benefit from knowing that information on their dog is helping to advance science and helping to advance dog health. A lot of people also really enjoy the community aspect of our project. All Dog Pack members sort of have the opportunity to interact with others on our little internal social media forum called the DAP Park, which I’m not sure whether or not you’ve had time to check out yet Angela. Another thing is that, honestly, as any veterinarian or pet owner can tell you is that a lot of people really love to talk about their dogs and to share their dogs lives with us. And some people find that innately rewarding.

Angela  

True story: I will talk about her more than I will talk about myself. So now you are personally involved with a really cool interventional study that we talked a bit about off camera. Fill us in on that.

Kate 

So one of our the ways that the Dog Aging Project is setting how to advance health span in dogs is with our only interventional trial. So while the rest of the Dog Aging Project is observational, we have one specific cohort of dogs that we’ve recruited to be part of a clinical trial of a new use of the medication. So the medication is called rapamycin. It’s long been used in human patients to help prevent rejection of organ transplants. And some recent studies and laboratory mice have shown that rapamycin might be able to slow down some of the negative health effects that we see from aging.

More splashy headlines might say things like rapamycin can slow the aging process or reverse aging. But what’s been found in some laboratory mice is that it can improve muscle function, heart function, cognition, reduce the incidence of cancer and a lot of other age related diseases. So what we’re looking at is that we’re doing what’s called a double blind, placebo controlled trial. For all of the dogs that are enrolled into our study, they receive a study medication that might either be rapamycin or a placebo, and they give it to their dog. Once a week, we follow up those dogs with how they’re doing every month, and we examine them every six months. They get a full either a neurological exam, or an echocardiogram, as well as full bloodwork, a full physical exam. And we follow them up every six months for three years. For one of those three years old, were receiving the study medication once a week, and then for the remainder … remaining two years, we’re just following them observationally with no study medication. So hopefully by the end of our project, we’ll be able to … it will be the first real large scale clinical study of rapamycin as a quote unquote anti aging drug. And that might tell us a lot about its potential in people as well as its potential to improve quality of lives of agent pets.

Angela  

Wow. What are the safety precautions around that in knowing I’m putting my dog into an experimental situation and giving her an unknown drug?

Kate 

Of course, so, rapamycin that it’s been used in people for many years. And we’re aware of how it works, and some of the side effects. There’s also already been a few pilot studies and previous research that’s been done on rapamycin in dogs. So we’re pretty aware of the most common side effects. In dogs, the most common side effects are things like GI upset. There’s also been some reported cases of changes in bloodwork values like having low platelets, or high triglycerides, fatty acids in the blood, that have been reversible when they’re taken off the medication. So those are the main things that we’re looking out for. We also are monitoring, following these dogs really closely with their owners every month. And partway through any study like this, they always, we always analyze our data, make sure that there’s we’re not seeing a really high amount of health events in one group of dogs versus another.

Angela  

Do you have an ongoing intake of study participants? i.e. do you need more?

Kate

Absolutely, we are. We are pretty ravenous for triad participants. What we’re looking for is dogs who are seven years of age or older, who weigh between, sorry, 44 and 120 pounds, I had to convert to American units for a second there. And who are willing to come to a triad clinical site every six months. If anybody listening to this podcast happens to be interested, the best place to get information from about it is that our website at dogagingproject.org. If you’re interested in triad, specifically, we have a new fast track program that can tell you whether or not you might qualify for advanced screening for triad. And that’s just a dog aging project.org/triad, T-R-I-A-D, triad.

Angela  

And where are the clinical sites?

Kate 

So the clinical sites are across the United States, we’ve been enrolling more and more sites this year, we’ve had a rapid expansion. We have sites in Los Angeles and Washington, multiple sites in Texas, Illinois, Ohio, all over the U.S. So the best way to find out if you’re if you’re close to a triad site is to take the assessment.

Angela  

Are there any specific breeds or types of dogs that you’re looking for?

Kate 

We are looking for any medium to large breed dog, we have some size restrictions. And they have to be otherwise healthy dogs but no breed restrictions; we’re interested in any and all breeds. And of course any dog that doesn’t meet our inclusion criteria for triad is very welcome to join the larger Dog Aging project. We’re looking for information on every all dogs of any age, any breed, any sterilization status and all across the United States. So every bit of data helps we want our study to be as representative of dogs across the U.S. as possible. We want everybody.

Angela  

I have a livestock guardian dog as a companion.

Kate

Does he work or …

Angela  

She works in guarding me and telling me what to do and she’s very opinionated. She’s my second one, I adopted my first one in a town that you, that may sound familiar to you, it’s Carstairs.

Kate 

Oh yes.

Angela  

Yeah, I found my first Maremma in Carstairs, Alberta and I am now deeply in love with the entire breed because of him.

Kate

They’re beautiful dogs.

Angela

They are. But they have a typical lifespan of 11 to 14, but the age span for medium to large dogs does vary across breeds. Do you see, do you see certain breeds who don’t have that extended lifespan being a little more helpful to your research, I’m thinking Great Danes, Bernese mountain dogs, you know, the ones that are fairly susceptible to early end of life?

Kate 

So with respect to the Dog Aging Project machine as a whole, we are interested in all of those breeds, we’re interested in every we’re interested in every breed, the more information that we have on dogs that maybe leave us too soon, versus dogs who live very exceptionally long, happy lives, all of those information, all of that information is really helpful for our database. All of it is stuff that as we collect over time, you might be able to analyze risk factors. So there’s no particular … we don’t really discriminate between breeds, we just want as much information as possible. For the triad project, in particular, we’re just looking for dogs who are seven years or older, who weigh between 44 and 120 pounds and who are otherwise relatively healthy.

Angela  

Yeah, do you think that something like this will identify the causes around some of those breeds having shorter lifespans?

Kate 

That’s definitely something that we hope, as we get more and more information, once we get enough dogs enrolled, if we have enough dogs of a particular breed, that increases our chances of being able to have enough data on that breed to make some breed specific conclusions. We also have one cohort of our dogs is having genome sequencing study performed. So we have researchers who are working on looking into the genetic factors that influence disease and aging. So things like information that might help us improve the health of specific breeds is definitely something that could be on the horizon as well.  

Angela  

And how do you balance individual anecdotal data with turning it into generalized findings for your research?

Kate 

That’s a really excellent question. And that is one of the things that were working on validating every year, we have some sort of internal projects that are going on that we’re slowly publishing data on about testing the validity of some of our survey instruments, comparing the information that dog owners give us with information that their veterinarians give us, or information that we take directly from their veterinary medical record for those owners who choose to share that with us. And so far, people are generally pretty good at reporting on their pet owner, on their on their dogs’ lives, we also find that people are relatively good at reporting on the activity of their dogs. It’s one of the sort of core principles of our, of our research model. And that’s something that we’re constantly working on validating and, and improving as well, because it’s really important that any tool that we use has to be usable by everybody, and accurate no matter who uses it. So it’s a little bit of a different approach to data collection than a very controlled study inside a research institution.

Angela

Have you been surprised by any information you’ve gleaned so far?

Kate 

Well, I would say that as a relatively early career, but who spent most of their life and referral institutions and specialty hospitals. I’ve been happy to see that a lot of dogs are healthier than I’m used to see. I found that that’s almost surprising. It’s just like, sometimes I feel like us. That’s where we’re bias towards thinking about all of the dogs out there, who we feel the time who are living with chronic disease, but it seems like a very large proportion of the population lives a really healthy life, which is really, really awesome to hear.

Angela  

What other future initiatives does the Dog Aging Project have in store for us?

Kate 

While we’re still working on achieving full recruitment in triad, we are thinking about unveiling some new cohorts that aren’t quite my area. We have been working on developing some measurement tools for owners to be able to measure their dog’s muscle mass and activity objectively at home. And we might be considering rolling those out to a larger population eventually. And those are a lot of things, we’re sort of in the maybe in the ramping up phase of triad, trying to validate our tools, improve our tools, and enroll more as many dogs into the study as we can.

Angela  

What’s it like personally, to be a part of this project and see the potential especially as far as extending dog lifespans, and potentially human lifespans?

Kate 

Um, I think it’s exciting. It’s a perspective that it’s a perspective that I really appreciate being able to learn about so many people’s dogs and know that all this data that we’re collecting is going to be helpful for people who study human aging as well. Sorry, I got a little bit sidetracked on the question.

Angela  

What’s it like to be involved in and knowing that you could be a part of changing the world?

Kate 

I think it’s fantastic. The dog aging project has a lot of researchers 70 Plus researchers across the across the country. So it’s really fantastic to be part of such a great community. That’s all as the same passions of loving our dogs, and wanting to improve their lives.

Angela

And it’s easy for people like me to get involved too, isn’t it?

Kate 

It is very easy to get involved. It’s, again, I would say that the easiest way to get involved is to nominate your dog or enroll your dog. The only requirement is that you have a computer with an Internet connection. And you can be part of our one of our the world’s largest studies on canine aging.

Angela  

Yeah, it’s just as simple as logging in and answering some questions about how your dog lives. I love it. Well, thank you so much.

Kate 

Okay, well, it was really nice to talk to you, Angela. Lovely to meet you.

Angela  

Yeah. Likewise, I want you to go ahead and have a great day.

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