Groundbreaking study aims to unravel cancer mystery

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby


It’s estimated one in three dogs will get cancer in its lifetime, according to the Canine Cancer Foundation. But veterinarians say the percentage can be even higher in some breeds, like Golden Retrievers. Experts are hoping to change that, and possibly uncover clues about cancer in humans, too.

Lisa DeBurle and her husband are raising their third Golden Retriever, named Luna. They know the odds are against them.

“With two-thirds of Goldens dying from cancer, there’s a very good chance we’ll lose her to that,” DeBurle said.

Cancer claimed the couple’s first two Golden Retrievers, Sasha and Riley, only years apart. DeBurle says she agonized over getting Luna.

“We don’t have kids,” DeBurle said. “The dogs were our family.”

In the end, they decided to try again. Only this time, the couple also wanted to help others.

On the advice of Green Lake veterinarian Dr. Jeb Mortimer, Luna was enrolled in the Morris Animal Foundation’s “Canine Lifetime Health Project,” based in Denver.

“It’s mega-data,” Dr. Mortimer said. “They’re basically trying to figure out environmental trends, genetic trends, and why this breed is faced with these diseases.”

The project is a first-of-its kind, intensive, long-term study of Golden Retrievers. The study will run up to 14 years, and needs 3,000 pure-bred Golden Retrievers. As of mid-November, there was space for 750 more.

Paperwork is heaviest for participating veterinarians like Dr. Mortimer. Information on each of Luna’s visits is documented and shared with the study. Her DNA is on file, and her blood drawn and tested at annual wellness visits.

“There’s a lot of monitoring and documentation, just to make sure it’s a true scientific study,” Dr. Mortimer said.

It’s a committment for DeBurle, as well. She must ensure Luna is seen regularly for the rest of her life, and largely at her own expense. The study reimburses participants $75 a year to offset the cost of the annual checkup.

But the payoff could be big, and not just for Luna or Golden Retreivers.

“They’re hoping to use this [to understand] cancer in all dogs,” DeBurle said. “And then they have an even bigger dream of it effecting cancer research for humans.”

“The canine model has always been there for human health,” Dr. Mortimer said. “There are a lot of similarities, and we could learn a lot from each other.”