Scientists Discover Gene That Extends Golden Retrievers’ Lives And Could Help Humans

Golden retrievers, one of the most beloved canine companions in the world, often face a heartbreaking statistic: up to a 65% chance of succumbing to cancer. The prevalence of this deadly disease in golden retrievers prompted researchers at the University of California, Davis to delve into the breed’s genetic makeup to identify a potential key to longer and healthier lives. Their groundbreaking study, recently published in the journal GeroScience, has uncovered a surprising genetic discovery that holds hope not only for these cherished dogs but also for humans facing similar cancer risks.

Golden Retrievers are one of the most popular dog breeds globally.

Photo: Pexels
Golden Retrievers are one of the most popular dog breeds globally.

A Puzzling Predicament

These golden retrievers, beloved for their friendly demeanor and golden coats, suffer a disproportionately high cancer risk. While some live to a ripe old age, others are tragically cut short by this devastating disease. As Metro reports, the researchers pondered whether there might be a hidden genetic factor contributing to the differences in their lifespans — could genetics be the missing piece to this perplexing puzzle?

The Discovery of HER4

Rather than searching for genes linked to cancer diagnoses in golden retrievers, the UC Davis researchers decided to take an alternative approach. They set out to uncover genes associated with longevity instead. According to Phys.org, the gene that emerged from their exhaustive study is known as HER4, or ERBB4. It belongs to the same family of human epidermal growth factor receptors as HER2, infamous for its role in promoting rapid cancer cell growth.

HER4 has a critical role to play not only in human cancer but also in canine health, Phys.org reports. This discovery offers a glimmer of hope for both golden retrievers and potentially for humans, as the two species share several types of cancers.

Golden Retrievers have a strong work ethic and love to please their owners.

Photo: Pexels
Golden Retrievers have a strong work ethic and love to please their owners.

Extending the Lives of Our Beloved Pets

To reach their findings, the researchers collected DNA samples from over 300 golden retrievers. They meticulously compared the DNA of dogs that reached 14 years of age with those that sadly succumbed to cancer before they turned 12. The results were nothing short of astonishing. According to Newsweek, dogs harboring specific variants of the HER4 gene enjoyed nearly two extra years of life, with an average lifespan of 13.5 years compared to 11.6 years.

This groundbreaking discovery represents a significant breakthrough. As Phys.org reports, in additional two years in a dog’s life is equivalent to a 15-20% increase in lifespan, akin to 12-14 human years. It’s an outcome that every pet owner dreams of—more cherished time with their loyal and loving companions.

Golden Retrievers are often used as therapy and service dogs.

Photo: Pexels
Golden Retrievers are often used as therapy and service dogs.

A Gendered Genetic Impact

The research also uncovered intriguing gender differences. As covered in another study published in The Journals of Gerontology, HER4 seemed to have a more pronounced impact on the longevity of female dogs compared to their male counterparts. This gendered variation may be attributed to the gene’s interaction with hormones, especially estrogen.

The Promise of Future Studies

While this discovery is a ray of hope for golden retrievers and potentially for humans, it’s just the first step in a long journey to unravel the complexities of cancer in these canine companions. Researchers acknowledge that numerous genes are likely involved in the interplay, and HER4 may be just one piece of the puzzle.

To shed further light on this genetic marvel, the next crucial step involves conducting studies with a more extensive population of golden retrievers. This will help verify and replicate the results and, more importantly, unveil how the genetic variants influence the expression and function of the HER4 gene.

The Golden Retriever breed is prone to certain health issues, including hip dysplasia and cancer.

Photo: Pexels
The Golden Retriever breed is prone to certain health issues, including hip dysplasia and cancer.

Bridging the Canine-Human Gap

The connection between golden retrievers and human cancer is a remarkable revelation. As researched in a study published in Molecules, the implications of HER4’s role in the formation and progression of cancer, as well as its potential to modify cancer risk, are promising for future cancer studies in both dogs and humans. This genetic revelation could pave the way for novel interventions and treatments, giving hope to those battling cancer on both sides of the species divide.

Golden retrievers, beloved for their warmth and affection, may now become beacons of hope in the fight against cancer. The discovery of the HER4 gene and its potential to extend lives offers a glimmer of optimism for these canine companions and a source of inspiration for the ongoing battle against cancer in the wider world.

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, spending time with his daughters, and coffee.
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