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Could man’s best friend rescue humanity from old age? Doggone it, UW researchers think they might!

SEATTLE– With one blue eye, Mouse is a dog you certainly notice. But, there’s more to this active 8-year-old dog than meets the eye.

Mouse just finished with a University of Washington study on dog longevity. It’s the first study of its kind where researchers gave dogs in the study medicine to see if would help them live longer.

“A dog companion is very much a significant relationship,” says Mouse’s owner, John Benavente, while playing with this Husky mix in his South Seattle backyard.

Benavente adopted Mouse from a nonprofit that rescues dogs from kill-shelters in Southern California. But, now the tables are turned and it's dogs like Mouse that might be doing the rescuing of all of us, from the perils of aging.

"I knew the medicine [they were using] and they were doing a low dosage. I just didn't think it would work."

Mouse was one of two dozen dogs over 6 years old in a UW study about how canines age. The drug they're using is something called rapamycin.

"It was originally identified from bacteria that were isolated in from soil samples on Easter Island," says researcher and professor of pathology Matt Kaeberlein.

Rapa Nui is one of the earliest terms used to describe the remote island in the Pacific Ocean. Kaeberlein says the naturally occurring substance essentially tricks the individual cells into thinking there's not enough nutrients around. The end result is this ends up slowing down the aging process. And so far, in both dogs and mice it has shown it improves some heart functions.

"What we`re really trying to do is to target the molecular processes of aging to keep dogs, and someday people, healthier longer and slowing down the aging process," says Kaeberlein. "And thereby delaying the onset of and progression of many, maybe all, age-related diseases."

Researcher and professor Matt Kaeberlein in his lab on the UW campus.

There are several reasons why dogs were chosen for this study, particularly people's pets. They comes in all shapes and sizes, they live in our environment completely, they've co-evolved with human beings, their life spans are shorter, which means researchers can learn more at a faster pace -- and it's easy to get dogs to eat nearly anything if it's hidden in a treat.

"Have you ever tried giving a pill to a cat?" joked co-researcher Daniel Promislow.

In the 10 weeks of the double-blind study, a low dose of rapamycin was given daily to Mouse and the other dogs. The FDA-approved drug is currently one that people take to prevent organ transplant rejection. Heart functions were monitored both before and after the 10 weeks.

Kaeberlein says not only did they see no side-effects between the dogs that got the sugar pill and the dogs that were on the rapamycin, but they also saw in all the subjects who received the actual medicine had what he calls "statistically significant improvement" in how their heart pumped blood. The second phase of the study is happening at Texas A&M and will likely consist of several hundred dogs and last six months of more. And it will also track how long the benefits of this treatment will last as well.

"There are hundreds and hundreds of diseases that humans and dogs share in common," says Promislow, a professor of biology and pathology.

He's excited about a second study that's only now getting underway at the University of Washington. It mirrors many of the long-term human studies like the Framingham (Massachusetts) Heart Study, Baltimore Longitudinal Study and the Women's Health Initiative.

This canine version would not intervene with medicine but merely observe what they hope to be more than 10,000 dogs. The hope is to get a better understanding of how dogs' genetics and environment affect the aging process. They also want to create a network of citizen scientists (pet owners), veterinarians, researchers, and volunteers to help us achieve our shared goal of giving dogs longer, healthier lives.

"Understanding more about dog aging is going to be great for dogs as well as for people."

If you'd like to read more about the Dog Aging Project, donate to their research efforts, or enroll your own dog in their longevity study, you'll want to start by checking out their website.