Melbourne researchers are examining the DNA of dogs in a research project aiming at determining the genetic causes of common pet diseases - and to provide a model for combating diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis in humans.
The researchers, led by Dr Steven Holloway from the University of Melbourne Faculty of Veterinary Science, have taken DNA from 100 dogs in the quest to determine what in their genetic makeup causes diseases such as diabetes, granulomatous meningitis (similar to multiple sclerosis) and immune-mediated haemolytic anemia, a condition which causes the immune system to attack red blood cells.
Dr Holloway said the research, backed by a grant from the Canine Research Foundation, would look at diseases of the immune system which could have a genetic cause.
The study investigates a group of proteins in the white blood cells of dogs and any subtle changes that may make the dog more prone to, or have better immunity against, certain diseases.
Using molecular biology, the research will seek out the genetic components of affected dogs that are responsible for creating immunity and then look at the DNA sequences to determine if there are any specific patterns responsible for causing certain diseases.
"If we can determine the genetic elements responsible for autoimmunity we may be better able to study how to prevent or treat these illnesses," Dr Holloway said.
"From the point of view of a breeder we may be able to provide genetic counselling to avoid breeding dogs with susceptibility to diseases of the immune system.
"The research will have a double benefit because any knowledge we can gain from creating and testing new treatments for dogs could also be relevant to humans."
Dr Holloway said the advantage of using dogs for this research was that because of in-breeding there was a very narrow range of genetic variability.
"If a disease is present we can more quickly make a direct correlation for susceptibility to a disease with a specific genetic pattern," he said.
The researchers now want to collect DNA, provided in a one millilitre blood sample, from more dogs with diseases of the immune system.
Werribee resident Kerry Fox has an Irish setter, Lady, who was diagnosed with diabetes about seven months ago.
Ms Fox has to inject her dog twice a day and make regular visits to the veterinarian to have its blood sugar levels checked.
She said she agreed for her dog to participate in the University of Melbourne trial as she hoped it would help other dogs, and ultimately even humans.