Golden retrievers are one of our most popular canine companions, but it’s an unfortunate fact that they also have a high risk of dying from cancer. However, a new study has identified a gene often associated with cancer that may also hold the key to helping goldens live for longer.
It’s a pretty heartbreaking statistic – golden retrievers have up to a 65 percent chance of dying from cancer. Nevertheless, there are plenty that also live a long and healthy life, so a team of researchers from the University of California, Davis, sought to find out what it was that made this difference.
“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 study author Robert Rebhun, in a statement.
Researchers identified this gene as important by analyzing the DNA of 304 golden retrievers, specifically comparing any differences between dogs that were alive at 14 years of age with those that died before they turned 12.
They found that goldens with certain variants of the gene lived for, on average, nearly two years longer. “Almost two years is a significant difference in a dog’s life,” said co-corresponding author Danika Bannasch. “Wouldn’t we all want our beloved pets to live another two years? Two years in goldens is about a 15-20% increase in lifespan, the equivalent of 12-14 years in humans.”
The difference could be down to the function of HER4 – its related protein is a member of a family of human epidermal growth factor receptors, which receive signals that tell cells to proliferate. As a result, they’re often associated with the rapid cell growth and replication seen in human cancer. HER2, for example, is often over-expressed in human breast cancer.
Dogs get many of the same cancers as humans do, so the study’s results could be valuable for both species. “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,” Rebhun explained.
However, cancer is a complex disease, and the study’s authors said that further research is required to solve the puzzle of cancer in golden retrievers. Existing research has found that HER4 can interact with estrogen, which could be linked to the current study’s finding that HER4 variants seemed to be the most important for the longevity of female dogs versus male dogs.
The researchers suggested that future studies should use a much larger number of golden retrievers, attempt to reproduce the results of existing research in dogs, and uncover how the variants discovered in the current study may impact the gene’s expression and function.
“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,” concluded Bannasch.
The study is published in the journal GeroScience.