Channel 2 Investigates

New research aims to slow aging in dogs

ATLANTA — Researchers from the University of Washington want to keep man's best friend around longer.

A woman who was part of a clinical trial says her dog was more energetic and playful because a pill made him act years younger

Dog lover Abbie Parks told Channel 2 Action News that she remembers when her beloved Maltese, Cassie Marie, was a young and energetic puppy.

"I got her when she was 5 1/2 weeks old," Parks remembered. "I'd eat a pork chop that weighed more than she did."

She also remembered when Cassie Marie started losing that puppy energy years later, and succumbed to illness.

"When my Cassie Marie got sick, critically ill, I was so upset that I had to write down my questions," Parks said of one of her dog's last visits to the veterinarian's office. "They're a companion. You spend time with them. Their love is totally unconditional."

And unconditional love is what dog parents need more of, says University of Washington researcher Dr. Matt Kaeberlein.

Kaeberlein and his colleague Dr. Daniel Promislow, are behind the Dog Aging Project. They have just completed their first round of clinical trials and are working on starting a nationwide study -- a first of its kind -- to track aging in man's best friend

"Because dogs are relatively short-lived, what took 50 or 60 years in a human, we can learn in five or 10 years in a dog," Promislow said.

The first round of clinical trials tested a drug called rapamycin.

In large doses, rapamycin is taken by humans to fight organ transplant rejection. The doctors said their research shows rapamycin in low doses can extend the life of lab mice.

"In every laboratory animal that we've tried, we've been able to increase life span by 90, 40, 50 percent by targeting the pathways that effect aging," Kaeberlein said.

Aging is something Rose Bigham said she couldn't help but notice in her 10-year-old dog, Rascal.

His black hair turned gray, and a pinched nerve kept him from playing as he used to.

"He hadn't ever, since that time, jumped up high as much, or chased as fast," Bigham said.

When she saw an advertisement in the paper for dogs to participate in the Dog Aging Project, she applied.

"He qualified, and I was thrilled," Bigham said.

Rascal was one of nearly 30 dogs that participated in the first clinical trial that tested rapamycin in middle-aged dogs over a 10-week span. Rascal was given a low-dose rapamycin pill three times per week.

"I definitely saw a change in my dog, and that thrills me," Bigham said. "That's my dog in his prime again."

The doctors said their research could increase a dog's life span by three to five years.

"People are just very excited about this," Promislow said. "We can now use those tools to study thousands of dogs around the country."

Abbie Parks and her vet, Toby Carmichael, are excited, too. Carmichael said pet dogs may not be the only ones benefiting from this research.

"The more research we see that's going down this pathway, the more we're going to see that that's going to correlate into better human lives," Carmichael said. "And to boot, they're going to be able to keep their pets with them a lot longer as well."

It's too late for Parks' Maltese, but maybe not too late for younger dogs.

"I would have been very happy if there would have been a drug that could have made Cassie last longer," Parks said.

Kaeberlein and Promislow said the only limiting factor for their research now is money. They're currently working on a large federal grant proposal. If fully funded, they say within five years they hope to increase healthy life span of dogs by two to five years.

They said their research is a race against the clock for dog owners.

"To be able to bring them back to a healthy quality of life -- that would be wonderful," Parks said.