August 4, 2022 – It’s a story we’ve often told and has become part of the Study’s lore. A conversation between a world-renowned canine cancer researcher, a woman whose family name is legendary in the veterinary research community, and the CEO of one of the largest animal health foundations in the world, was the seed that grew into a first-of-its-kind study. The scientist was Dr. Rod Page, Professor and Director of the Flint Animal Cancer Center, and the CEO was Dr. Patricia Olson. Bette Morris, wife of the late Dr. Mark Morris Jr., rounded out the trio. Their plan was a bold one – create a longitudinal study following 3,000 dogs over the course of their lifetimes to learn more about cancer risk factors. No one had ever attempted a study like it before in veterinary medicine.
“It’s very gratifying to be at the 10-year point and know all that’s been accomplished to date,” said Bette Morris. “I think from the beginning we had a sense this would be one of the most important studies ever done for dogs.”
Structured after the famed Framingham Heart Study, the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study enrolled the first 50 pilot dogs in June of 2012, opening up enrollment in August 2012 and completing enrollment in March 2015.
“Dr. Rod Page, as the Study’s first Principal Investigator, was instrumental in designing the study,” added Bette Morris. “He considered very carefully all the different aspects and types of information that researchers might want. We all knew it would be difficult, but we took on that challenge and Rod was there through the different stages and has been extremely important in getting us to this point.”
It took a few years to hire staff, set the initial protocols, develop survey questions and raise the initial funds for the Study but in June 2012, the first dogs were entered into the pilot program. And we’ve never looked back.
Retention and compliance remain high, rivaling many human studies. In July 2020 we updated our data collection and management systems and built a platform to share data and samples with researchers around the globe. In April 2021 we launched the Golden Age project to collect health information about the aging process.
The heart of the Study remains the participant owners and their veterinary teams. Without the tireless dedication, hard work and commitment of this important group, the Study would not be a success.
“My greatest pleasure over the last decade has been the people I’ve been able to meet and grow with,” said Dr. Page. “The Study teams, participants and scientists have all contributed greatly to my professional and personal mission to conquer cancer.”
“I am so grateful for all the dog owners and veterinarians who believed in the project and ‘went out on a limb’ with the Foundation to make the Study a reality,” said Dr. Debbie Davenport, Foundation Trustee and head of the board’s Study committee. “They became part of something valuable and were willing to commit to a project they knew would last for many years.”
Bette Morris echoed these sentiments and expressed her gratitude to the researchers around the world who are beginning to analyze the data collected in the last 10 years. In addition, the Study has provided opportunities for young veterinary scientists to gain valuable training for their future careers.
As of August 1, 2022, just under 2,000 (64.3%) dogs remain in the Study. Cancer-related deaths account for roughly 75% of the total deaths recorded. The current average age of Study dogs is 9.4 years old.
Dozens of nested studies are in planning, underway or nearing completion, and the team is working with researchers around the world to create new partnerships. The topics under investigation are diverse and include:
- Understanding human-to-dog transmission of COVID-19 in the cohort
- Identifying molecular signatures to detect lymphoma earlier
- Exploring variations in the microbiome of dogs with and without a cancer diagnosis
Along with these nested studies, we’ve added additional voluntary surveys to learn more about diseases that are important to all dog owners, including osteoarthritis, itching/dermatitis and cognitive decline. We can’t wait to see what these new projects find!
It’s hard to know what the legacy of the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study will be. We know that it has served as a model for new longitudinal studies in veterinary medicine. The Study also brought awareness to the general public about the important role dogs can play in understanding health issues not just in dogs, but in other animals and people.
“The legacy of the Study will be determined by what we learn,” said Bette. “We’re hopeful we’ve gained comprehensive knowledge and results that will inform research moving forward. And time will tell how this impacts our dogs and us.”