What we can learn about aging from dogs

For as long as time, we humans have been obsessed with turning back time and holding onto our youth. But now a study seeks to examine how to slow down aging in our four-legged friends.

Matt Kaeberlein is a professor of pathology at the University Of Washington. He heads up the Dog Aging Project. He and his team just completed phase 1 of their study on 40 older dogs. His team has been testing a drug in dogs that may increase lifespan and delay diseases of aging.

That drug is called rapamycin. It's normally prescribed to prevent organ transplant rejection in people, but in old mice it has been shown to restore some of their heart function back to a more youthful state.

In the Seattle study, the dogs were given the pills and then underwent echocardiograms to examine heart function. Kaeberlein said that based on the echocardiography, the dogs getting the drug had improved cardiac function compared to the dogs getting the placebo.

Kaeberlein says it's a promising finding, although it is too soon to know whether the drug could extend dog's lives and make them healthier overall.

But there is also another objective: seeing how drugs like rapamycin might be able to eventually counter aging in humans.

Dr. Nir Barzilai is the director of the institute of aging research at Albert Einstein School of Medicine. He consults on the Dog Aging Project, but he is also getting ready to start a separate study of a potentially anti-aging drug called metformin. He says testing the next generation of drugs on animals will help researchers get better at targeting aging in humans and increasing our healthspan.

It is still way too early to be able to apply any of the findings of these studies to humans. For phase 2 of the dog aging project scientists hope to study hundreds of dogs over a period of 3 to 5 years.