August 24, 2023 — We’re celebrating the 11th anniversary of Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. This monumental project is collecting health information on 3,000+ dogs throughout their lifetimes and was conceived to fill a gaping hole in veterinary research: understanding risk factors for cancer in dogs. It’s amazing what our Study participants, Study veterinarians, supporters and staff have accomplished since the first dog was enrolled in June 2012!
Why This Project?
Before the launch of the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, few researchers or academic institutions had the resources or organizational structure to run a multiyear, multimillion-dollar prospective project that collected data and samples in real time on thousands of animals. Retrospective studies, which look at one-point-in-time data and samples, remain one of the most common and cost-effective ways to analyze data. However, retrospective studies can be subject to unintended bias. While this approach continues to provide valuable insight into how cancers behave and possible therapy targets, it falls short in identifying causal factors that can contribute to the development of disease.
The Study took years to conceive and launch, thanks to visionary leaders, including Dr. Rod Page, the first primary investigator of the Study; Dr. Bette Morris, Trustee Emeritus; and Dr. Patricia Olsen, past President and CEO of the Foundation; along with input from leaders in the veterinary research community. Together, the team crafted the vision of the project and identified four important canine cancers of special research interest: lymphoma, hemangiosarcoma, high-grade mast cell tumors and osteosarcoma.
However, before the recruitment of dogs into the Study could begin, project goals and design needed to be solidified, oversight committees needed to be assembled and startup money had to be raised.
The team developed extensive and comprehensive surveys to collect dog health from both dog owners in the Study and veterinarians that signed up as primary caretakers of the participants.
An enrollment tool called the Canine Lifetime Health Project was set up to help interested owners enroll dogs and for staff to screen eligible participants. For owners to successfully enroll their dogs in the Study, the dogs needed to have a two-generation pedigree, be between the ages of 6 months and 2 years old and be free from any known chronic or life-limiting diseases.
The Study required dogs from all 48 contiguous states so a broad geographic region could be represented in the cohort’s data and samples would better represent all dogs living in the United States.
In June 2012, the Foundation launched a pilot study with a small group of golden retrievers that met the enrollment criteria. The pilot study helped ensure that all systems were in place for the influx of thousands of dog enrollees. After working through some procedural loose ends, open enrollment to reach the target goal of 3,000 was launched in August 2012. Enrollment was ongoing to reach the target goal of 3,000+ dogs – a target reached in March 2015.
Why Golden Retrievers?
Golden retrievers were chosen as the Study dog because:
- High Incidence of Reported Cancers in the Breed
Surveys conducted by the Golden Retriever Foundation of dog owners confirmed that golden retrievers have a higher incidence of cancer than most other breeds in the United States. As the Study was designed first as a canine cancer study, golden retrievers could potentially provide valuable data that could shed light on canine cancer risk factors.
- Extreme Popularity of the Breed
With lots of golden retrievers living in the United States, enrolling the necessary number of dogs would be easier to achieve in a shorter period of time.
- Singular Genetics
A genetic area of interest in one dog breed may not be the same genetic area of interest in another dog breed. But the genetic information gathered from one breed can still provide valuable information that can be pursued in other breeds as well as mixed breed dogs. Golden retrievers can provide a genetic gateway for answers about cancer and other diseases in dogs.
Milestones Reached So Far
The Study started with a collection approach to gather vast amounts of data and samples as a repository of information to spur meaningful dog health research and be a resource for researchers now and in the future.
Some milestones achieved in the 11 years since the Study’s inception include:
- 500+ Cancer Diagnoses in the Cohort
While this is a grim milestone, cancer has proven to be the No. 1 cause of mortality in the dogs enrolled in the Study. A large number of cancer diagnoses are required to support statistically meaningful research, especially when scientists want to study and identify causal associations and risk factors for cancer in golden retrievers and other dogs.
- Hemangiosarcoma Initiative
Hemangiosarcoma, an almost universally fatal cancer, accounts for about 70% of cancer deaths to date in our Study cohort. This unexpected early finding of the Study has prompted the Foundation to launch the Hemangiosarcoma Initiative, dedicated to providing funding, people and resources to advance the prevention, detection and treatment of, and potentially cures for, this devastating cancer. Several studies, including those using data and samples from the Study, have recently been approved for funding and will focus on finding ways to help dogs affected by this devastating disease.
- Data Commons
In 2019, Morris Animal Foundation launched Data Commons, a database rich with research opportunities from the Study. In 2023, the platform was updated to accommodate the growing database, improve accessibility and encourage access. We’re working with external experts in big data to continually improve this free resource for researchers. Data Commons is also a valuable asset that supports our embedded studies program.
- Embedded Studies
In the last few years, more than a dozen embedded studies have been conducted by researchers using data and/or samples from the Study. Calls for access to samples and/or data are now part of our regular granting cycle. Recent studies have focused on diet and heart disease, gut microbiome, early detection of, and risk factors for, cancer and much more.
- Genotyping of Study Dogs
To add to the rich Study data, we completed genomic sequencing data on all enrolled dogs. This new information will help expand our understanding of the genetic aspects of cancer. We will be adding genomic sequencing data to our Data Commons open-data-resource platform to help support more genetic studies of canine cancer.
- Golden Oldies Project
In 2020, complementing the genotyping project, the Foundation enrolled and genotyped an adjunct group of senior golden retrievers that have successfully avoided cancer diagnoses. Titled Golden Oldies, this group of dogs 12 and older is serving as a control group for the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. The golden oldies’ DNA will be compared to DNA from Study dogs diagnosed with cancer to help look for differences that could provide clues as to why some dogs get cancer and others don’t.
- Neuropathology Initiative
In 2022, the Foundation, in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, the University of California in Irvine, and others, launched the Neuropathology Initiative to help us better understand cognitive disorders in older dogs. Through the generosity and extra commitment of owners of Study dogs, we are collecting and examining brain tissue from up to 200 Study dogs in combination with results from annual behavioral questionnaires to learn more about links between behavior and changes in the brain.
This project would not be possible without the support of collaborative research and major funding partners. We have active partnerships with:
- Mark & Bette Morris Family Foundation
Thanks to Bette Morris and family for providing the seed money to launch the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. Their invaluable initial gift and continuing support has helped maintain a steady stream of funding for the Study since its inception.
- Golden Retriever Foundation®
The Golden Retriever Foundation® have been an invaluable partner in the Study’s journey from inception to today. This group of dedicated dog owners and enthusiasts were instrumental in the recruitment and enrollment of 3,000+ golden retrievers into the Study and continue to provide financial support for the Study.
- V Foundation
This nonprofit organization provided $2,000,000 additional support to help genotype all the Study dogs. This generous gift has provided a valuable genomic resource for the cancer research community that will not only help dogs but may also help inform translational research for similar cancers in people.
This leading retailer of dog products, outdoor travel apparel and fly-fishing gear has raised more than $2 million to support the Study through corporate gifts and their Orvis Cover Dog Contest. Our 14-year partnership is rooted in our shared goal to improve the lives of dogs impacted by cancer.
- Petco Love and Blue Buffalo
Petco Love and Blue Buffalo share our passion to fight canine cancers and they continue to support our canine cancer funding efforts, including the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study, with corporate and matching campaign gifts.
Elanco is sponsoring a new section of the owner and veterinarian questionnaires that directly evaluates signs of osteoarthritis. Elanco’s sections include their Canine Osteoarthritis Staging Tool (COAST) and Liverpool Osteoarthritis in Dogs Index (LOAD) tools that help in the diagnosis of the disease. The questions cover topics such as a dog’s walking gait, sitting posture and interest in exercise. Veterinarians are conducting a companion assessment to look for clinical signs of osteoarthritis.
- Purina Institute
The Purina Institute is sponsoring the addition of cognitive dysfunction-focused questions to the current data collection process. The new questions ask owners and veterinarians about behaviors that may indicate changes in learning and memory, disorientation, social Interactions, sleep/wake cycles, house soiling, activity and anxiety.
This biotechnology company has donated valuable testing and analysis of stool samples, generously donated by our Study dogs! This added data will help in the study of the relationship between dog microbiomes and cancer, as well as other health outcomes.
Where We Are Headed
While the initial goal of the Golden Retriever Lifetime Study was to reach 500 diagnoses of the top four cancers of interest, the Foundation is dedicated to following the remaining dogs in the Study – about half of the original 3,044 dogs – throughout their lifetime. We continue to collaborate with outside organizations and academic institutions by providing support, data and samples to advance research on canine cancer and other health challenges.
The Golden Retriever Lifetime Study also gives us the opportunity to investigate many other canine health problems. We currently have studies looking at ear infections, antibiotic resistance, heartworm disease and many other areas of dog health.
The Study also continues to be a template for the design of a growing number of prospective health studies in dogs, including the Dog Aging Programs.
Visit our website to learn more about Morris Animal Foundation’s Golden Retriever Lifetime Study. Follow our progress or donate to support this groundbreaking study that is helping to shape the way with care for our dogs.