My wife and I are the owners – sometimes called “pet parents” – of a golden retriever named Lila who turned 12 a few months ago. She is a marvellous companion with an insatiable appetite and loves to run on the beach (seen right). Earlier this week, I came across a fascinating article by Marlene Cimons in The Washington Post entitled “Dog breed prone to cancer gives golden clues to disease.” It turns out that during their lifetimes more than 60% of golden retrievers will develop cancer, compared to 25% in other breeds.
Scientists at the University of California at Davis, led by Dr Robert Rebhun, have just published a paper in GeroScience (click here to download) in which they sought to understand why some golden retrievers live longer than others. They discovered a genetic variant in some dogs that enabled them to enjoy a life span two years longer than those without it – a significant difference in a dog. The variants were found on a gene called ErbB4 that is equivalent to a family of human genes whose variants are linked to cancer.
Rebhun’s own dog Jessica (seen left, © Washington Post) was one of more than 300 golden retrievers that participated in the study, and lived until she was 16½. He and his co-authors established that the ErbB4 gene appears to have two variants, one that promotes survival, and the other linked to a shorter lifespan. The study touched on one of life’s greatest mysteries, not only in dog science but in human health as well: Why do some people live longer than others?
The ErbB4 variants would appear to function either like an oncogene – which promotes cancer – or like a tumour suppressor gene, which slows down cancer development. Rebhun commented that understanding the underlying mechanisms has significant potential. For example, research on the HER2 gene – which is part of the same family as ErbB4 – led to the development of the breakthrough drug Herceptin to treat patients with HER2-positive breast cancer.
Also featured in the article by Cimons was Dr Sara Fritz, a practising veterinary oncologist whose golden retriever named Emma (seen right, © Washington Post) died two months ago aged 6, having suffered from an aggressive cancer called hemangiosarcoma. Although both heartbroken and frustrated, Fritz is nevertheless encouraged by the recent research findings. She grew up with golden retrievers – all lost to cancer – and this experience inspired her choice of career. Before Emma died, Fritz’s family acquired another golden retriever, prompting her to comment, “Even knowing what I know, professionally and personally, I still wouldn’t have any other breed.”