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Dogs Shed New Light on Cancer Genes in Humans

Cancer researchers are finding that purebred dogs may help provide answers about the genetic basis of cancer -- in dogs and humans -- because the dogs' small genetic pool makes it easier to isolate cancer-causing genetic mutations. The NewsHour provides a report.

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  • BETTY ANN BOWSER, NewsHour Correspondent:

    After all of the poofing, coifing, spraying and prancing, the purebred dogs that compete at the Annual Westminster Kennel Club's Dog Show in New York aren't just the best examples of their breeds.

    Scientists now believe they may be best at something else: providing answers about why humans get cancer.

    It's estimated that, every year in the United States, 10 percent of all dogs develop some form cancer, and purebreds like these are perfect for research because their genetic make-up and controlled lineage is clearly traceable. Champion Irish wolfhounds, like Greta, are leading the way.

    Backstage, researcher Dana Mosher from the National Institutes of Health swabbed Greta's mouth for DNA.

  • DANA MOSHER, National Human Genome Research Institute:

    The purebred domestic dogs, in order to be a registered member of the club, both of those dogs' parents had to have been registered members, and their parents, and their parents. So the genetic pool for a particular breed is very, very small.

    So what you're hoping is that most of their DNA looks similar and that it's easier to find that area where they look different and that is associated with the disease of interest.


    Greta's DNA went to the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, where scientists isolate the genes that cause cancer. Dr. Elaine Ostrander heads the program.

  • ELAINE OSTRANDER, National Human Genome Research Institute:

    Most of the cancers that are a problem in humans, we see in dogs. So, melanomas, skin cancers, lymphomas, leukemias, most of the things we think about in humans we see as canine cancers, as well.

    We want to identify the genes that are responsible for those diseases in dogs. And, in doing so, we've learned a lot, almost certainly about what's responsible for those diseases in humans, as well.


    Different kinds of dogs are susceptible to different forms of cancer, so their breeders are highly motivated to help with the research.

  • ANNE MARIE KUBACZ, Dog Breeder:

    I think that that's one of the responsibilities of breeding a good dog, is recognizing what kinds of problems your breed can have.


    Anne Marie Kubacz not only breeds champion Irish wolfhounds, she also shows champion Irish setters, like Spencer. Both breeds are susceptible to bone cancer. Kubacz hopes that research will mean that eventually she can breed dogs without that inherited trait.


    Once we find what that gene is that's messed up, then it becomes very, very quick to figure out how to develop targeted therapies to overcome that in the cell for humans, as well as for dogs.