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  • Posted October 26, 2023

Gene Discovery Could Mean Longer Lives for Golden Retrievers, Maybe Humans

New research is shedding light on why one of man's best friends -- the golden retriever -- has high odds for cancer death, although some end up living much longer than average.

This popular dog breed has an up to 65% chance of dying from cancer.

“We assume that the majority of golden retrievers have a genetic predisposition to cancer, but if some of them are living to be 14, 15 or 16, we thought there could be another genetic factor that is helping to mitigate the bad genes, and the gene that popped out for us is HER4,” said co-author Dr. Robert Rebhun, chair in oncology at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

HER4, also known as ERBB4, is in the family of human epidermal growth factor receptors.

It is the same family of genes in humans as HER2, which is well known for making cancer cells grow quickly.

Dogs get many of the same types of cancer as humans do, so this could be an important discovery for people and not just their canine best friends, Rebhun said in a school news release.

“If we find that this variant in HER4 is important either in the formation or progression of cancer in golden retrievers, or if it can actually modify a cancer risk in this cancer predisposed population, that may be something that can be used in future cancer studies in humans,” he said.

The authors included more than 300 golden retrievers in the study, comparing DNA from blood samples of those alive at age 14 with those who died before age 12. Dogs with certain variants of the gene survived longer, on average 13.5 years compared to 11.6 years.

“Almost two years is a significant difference in a dog's life,” said co-author Dr. Danika Bannasch, a chair in genetics with the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. “Wouldn't we all want our beloved pets to live another two years? Two years in goldens is about a 15% to 20% increase in life span, the equivalent of 12 to 14 years in humans.”

The finding is one small piece of the complex reasons that a golden retriever gets cancer, Bannasch said.

“There are going to be many genes involved, but the fact that the gene associated with longevity is also a gene involved in cancer was really interesting to us,” Bannasch noted in the release.

This gene variant appeared to be most important to the longevity of female dogs, researchers said.

HER4 has been shown to interact with hormones such as estrogen. It may also be involved in processing environmental toxins.

Rebhun said he would like to enroll a larger population of golden retrievers in a study to see if the results can be reproduced.

The findings were published recently in the journal GeroScience.

More information

The American Veterinary Medical Association has more on cancer in pets.

SOURCE: University of California, Davis, news release, Oct. 19, 2023

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