Some 1,800 golden retrievers are enrolled or in the midst of enrolling in what promises to be one of the largest and longest research studies conducted in veterinary medicine.
Photo by Erin Moore Photography
Hurley was enrolled in the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study by owners Patina and Brian Hooten of Middleton, Wis. Hurley’s veterinarian is Patina’s sister; she encouraged them to participate.
The ambitious project, called the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, aims to follow dogs from puppyhood to the ends of their lives to glean information that organizers hope will contribute to the prevention and treatment of cancer and other diseases, such as epilepsy and diabetes.
The $25 million, 12-year study was launched in 2012 by the Morris Animal Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports scientific research to advance veterinary medicine.
Dr. David Haworth, CEO of the Denver-based foundation, compares the project to the Framingham Heart Study, a well-recognized and respected long-term study begun in 1948 with 5,200 adult residents of a Massachusetts town. A quest to understand the factors that contribute to cardiovascular disease, the Framingham study is ongoing to this day, with researchers following a third generation of participants.
As with the Framingham approach, the golden retriever study will try to capture all aspects of the dogs’ lives. Study designers hope the information will provide insights into the influences of genetics, environment, lifestyle and nutrition on healthy dogs and on dogs with disease.
Study organizers chose to focus on golden retrievers because they appear to have a relatively high risk of cancer, and as one of the most popular dog breeds in America, should be available in sufficient numbers. Study organizers believe that the data will be applicable to dogs in general. Although a distinct breed, “goldens aren’t a different species,” Haworth said.
To be included in the study, dogs must be purebred golden retrievers with a three-generation pedigree, younger than 2 years and healthy at the time their owners apply to participate. Owners must be 18 years or older and living in the contiguous United States.
Study Director Dr. Michael Guy points out that the research project, while conceptually similar to Framingham, is unique and more complex because dogs, owners and veterinarians around the country are involved.
Participation involves regularly submitting written information about the dog and biological samples. During online enrollment and again each year, the owner is posed a series of questions about the dog's diet, travel, reproductive history, living environment, exercise and behavior.
Also annually, the dog must be physically examined and have samples of blood, stool, urine, nails and hair collected by a veterinarian registered in the program. Clients are expected to see the same veterinarian for all other health events that may occur. (If owners or veterinarians relocate during the course of the dog’s life, the owners may find another participating veterinarian via a registry maintained by Morris.)
The aim is to learn about all the important medical events in the dogs' lives, Guy said, and answer questions such as: In dogs that develop lymphoma, when do the first signs appear?
Photo courtesy of Morris Animal Foundation
CEO Dr. David Haworth enrolled his own pup Bridger so that he can understand what participants experience. He acknowledges that participating is a significant commitment, saying "There's no way that this is an easy thing,” but believes the effort is deeply worthwhile.
“We'll learn a lot about timing and onset,” Guy said. “I hope we will set a new gold standard on (understanding) hypothyroidism, diabetes and epilepsy. We’ll track other kinds of cancer. We will try to track any disease that has an incidence of 4 percent (or greater) and see if we can prevent these things rather than need to cure them.”
Haworth has equally high expectations of answers the study may yield.
“Is drinking water from a metal or ceramic bowl better? Do dogs that live in houses sprayed with insecticide get cancer from it?” Haworth asked. “Right now I can't tell you. We don't know. But we hope to know.”
Dr. Rod Page, principal investigator of the study and director of Colorado State University’s Flint Animal Cancer Center, said the Morris Animal Foundation’s cancer-focused research is a response to findings from a survey of donors about canine health. Donors identified cancer as their number-one concern.
The lifetime study was conceived during a meeting of oncologists Morris had assembled in 2007. The cancer specialists, including Page, were asked what they were missing in their quest to understand the disease. The answer: a lifelong study.
Haworth said such a study — known as a prospective study because it is designed before information is gathered, and research subjects are followed into the future — is a departure from traditional veterinary research. Typically, researchers obtain medical records from veterinary schools and look back. That approach has built-in bias, Haworth said, because the data is limited to cases seen at a particular teaching hospital or hospitals in a specific geographic area or areas. Moreover, he said, it can be impossible to elicit consistent information from records derived from different schools due to variations in record-keeping.
The lack of a central repository for information about diseases in companion animals means that much of what is believed about disease risk in given breeds — such as the idea that golden retrievers are predisposed to cancer — is based on anecdote, Haworth said, pointing out that there’s nothing for dogs like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “There is not a lot of good data out there,” he said.
In the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, the Morris team and project sponsors will do some of the data analysis. Donors of more than $2 million get a first look at the data. After 18 months, anonymized raw data will be made freely available to the general research community. Haworth added that if any significant risk factor surfaces, that information will not be held, but immediately made publicly available.
The biggest project donor to date is the Mark L. and Betty Morris Family Foundation, which gave $10 million. Others that have pledged $2 million or more in cash and/or in-kind services are the Blue Buffalo Foundation for Cancer Research, Petco Foundation, VCA Antech and Zoetis.
Photo courtesy of Morris Animal Foundation
Dr. Michael Guy is in charge of day-to-day operations of the study. A former clinician, Guy enjoys getting down on the floor to play with dogs even though he wears a tie to work these days. He's seen here with an enrolled golden named Wrigley.
Haworth is counting on veterinary researchers everywhere to tap the information and make sense of it. “My dream is there would be a steady stream of publications,” he said, adding, “My big fear is that it will be like the last scene in Raiders of Lost Ark where they shove the ark into a government warehouse … My fear is not enough people will see it and ask questions.”
Study organizers have enrolled 1,000 dogs and are in the process of enrolling another 800, according to Guy. They’re seeking a total of 3,000 dogs coming in equal proportions from five geographical regions: South, Northeast, Midwest, West and Pacific.
“Based upon our projections of rate of dogs’ death, loss of participants due to owner or veterinarian lack of interest, financial problems, retirement of veterinarians, etc., we need to have 3,000 dogs enroll in order to have 500 evaluable cancers (hemangiosarcoma, lymphoma, osteosarcoma and mast cell tumor),” Guy explained by email.
Although owners who enroll their dogs are asked to commit for their dogs’ lifetimes, they are not legally compelled to do so.
Sample collection detailed
During registration, Haworth said, owners are asked three times to affirm their intention to commit for the life of their dogs. “However, there is no contractual obligation or negative repercussions if they pull out,” he said. “I will say that these are extraordinary owners, and we’ve already been pleasantly surprised at their dedication and zeal to stay in the study.”
One of the participating dogs is Hurley Hooten, a furry ball of energy with soulful eyes. Hurley was 6 months old when his owners, Patina and Brian Hooten of Middleton, Wis., decided to enroll him. They were encouraged to join by Patina’s sister, who is Hurley’s primary veterinarian.
Before they bought Hurley, the Hootens had a golden retriever mix who was prone to seizures. That raised their sensitivity to health issues in the breed. They were relieved to learn that although epilepsy is common in goldens, the breeder from whom they obtained Hurley had only two dogs with a history of seizures.
Patina has no qualms about making a lifelong commitment to the study: “The costs (of examinations) over the years don't worry me since we'd be helping future generations of pups and breeders with the overall health of the breed,” she said.
Haworth, for his part, has enrolled a dog so that he can share the experience of participating owners. His pup Bridger, now almost 10 months old, was 6 months old at the time of enrollment. That raises the question, did he get Bridger just to participate?
“That's a matter of debate in my house,” Haworth replied. “We lost a Lab last year, the kids are in college, and we thought we'd like a smaller dog. But I've always loved goldens, and as I was thinking about this study, we found this perfect little dog. So maybe I would not have gotten one except for the study.”
He quipped, “The lifespan of a golden is usually longer than that of a CEO, and I've promised Bridger will remain enrolled no matter what happens to me.”
Another veterinarian who, like Haworth, enrolled his own dog is Dr. Michael Lappin of Massachusetts.
Lappin has been on the Golden Retriever Club of America’s health and genetics committee for years. He also is a former vice president of the Golden Retriever Foundation, a related organization that supports health research. The foundation is contributing $1 million to the lifetime study.
“We said, ‘This is what we have to spend, this is what we want, tell us what we can get for our buck,’ ” Lappin recounted. “When they were looking for vets to participate, I was like, ‘Hey me, I'll do it,’ no problem here.”
Not every veterinarian is as eager to join. On a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession, some clinicians expressed concern about the time it takes to conduct the annual exams, including collecting samples and submitting data — body weight, height, heart rate, respiratory rate and the like — to Morris. They also wondered whether to charge clients for the extra time involved. Study organizers estimate the annual appointments may take three times as long as a typical exam.
Haworth recommends that veterinarians charge appropriately for their time, and acknowledges that the commitment is not small. He suggests that clinicians who do not wish to participate share their concerns upfront with clients.
“We ask a lot of the owners and a lot of the veterinarians,” Haworth said. “It has all the painful aspects of a clinical trial. I'd much prefer someone said that (it’s too much time) at the beginning and not make a commitment rather than drop out ... 5 years (later).”
Page, the study’s principal investigator, said the role of the veterinarian is critical to the success of the study.
“It couldn't happen unless we have strong veterinary partners,” Page said. “We have some veterinarians who take this on as a way to enhance their practice, and there is some competition among veterinarians to see how many dogs are enrolled. Two or three have between five and seven dogs enrolled.”
Haworth couldn’t provide a precise number of registered veterinarians, but said it is “in the thousands.” He added, “We’d like to have every veterinarian in the U.S. aware of the study, and if they decide this is something they would be willing to do, to sign up.”
As study director, Guy reaches out to owners, veterinarians and their staff to work through any snags. Sometimes he hears about problems purely by chance.
“I was at breakfast during a (veterinary) conference and overheard people at another table talk about what a pain the study was,” Guy said. “I gave them my card and offered my help.”
He hopes practitioners will speak up and seek assistance if they need it. “My job is to make participation as easy as possible,” Guy said. “If you're having problems, don't spend two hours on it. Give us a call.”
Although the study is underway, enrollment and fundraising continue. Figures provided by Haworth show that of the $25 million organizers calculate they need to follow the dogs for 12 years, Morris has raised $17 million in cash and $3.3 million in in-kind contributions. Among the larger donors is the Marion Stuart Foundation, which contributed $1 million; and the actress Betty White, the Morris Animal Foundation’s longest longest-serving trustee. White made “a substantial personal gift,” Haworth said, but did not specify the amount.
The study also is attracting donations from people who have lost their golden retrievers to cancer.
If the foundation is able to raise more than $25 million, it may run the study longer. “We will follow these dogs as long as the funds permit,” Guy said. “If/when the money runs out, no further data would be collected on the remaining survivors, but it is my hope that we will have enough funds to follow all 3,000 dogs through to their deaths.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed from the original to correct the number of dogs in the process of enrolling at the time of publication. As of April 2014, the study had enrolled 1,200 dogs, with 600 in the pipeline. According to Guy, only one out of four dogs in the pipeline ends up enrolling.