The Dog Aging Project, which researchers say could yield promising leads for human longevity research, is at a critical crossroads after the National Institute on Aging declined to renew their grant funding.
The massive project has been tracking the aging process of almost 50,000 companion dogs across the country through surveys and a biobank with over 14,000 tissue and other samples. With the funding from NIA — a part of the National Institutes of Health — set to run out in June, the project stands to lose as much as 90% of its annual budget. Starting in 2018, the project has received about $29 million in federal funding. Despite the loss of funding, the project’s co-founders aren’t ready to roll over and play dead, just yet — their long-term goal is to raise at least $40 million, and possibly up to $50 million to fund research related to the biology of aging in dogs, and humans.
Two of the research project’s co-founders and co-directors Daniel Promislow and Matt Kaeberlein, spoke with STAT about the progress they have made so far and what the road ahead looks like as they look for alternate sources of funding to keep the long-term study going. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Given the NIA’s decision to not renew funding for your project, how are you thinking about the progress made so far?
Promislow: We will be resubmitting a grant in May and our hope is that we will be back to full funding in 2025. There are a lot of challenges around funding a study like this. The Dog Aging Project is a massive, long-term longitudinal study of aging in companion dogs, pet dogs. We’ve already released two years of data — 10s of millions of data points. We’re about to release our third year of data to scientists around the world: genetics, environmental data, climate data, molecular data, systems biology, lifestyle. And on top of all that we have a clinical trial.
What we’re trying to do is incredibly ambitious. First, we had to build the infrastructure in the middle of a global pandemic. We did it and we’ve published almost 50 papers. We’ve been incredibly productive, but I think from the reviewers’ perspective, they want even more. The challenge is that what we’re trying to do is a kind of forever study. Our goal is to follow these dogs for their lives, and to continue to enroll new dogs to be able to ask new questions and the world of NIH runs on a five-year funding cycle. For long-term longitudinal studies of dogs, and people of course, it takes more than five years to understand the aging process. And that’s the challenge.
Kaeberlein: There have been significant contributions to the scientific literature, including the clinical trial. So we have a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial of a drug called rapamycin. Truly, the first-ever clinical trial in dogs or humans to assess the effect of a drug on the biology of aging, with lifespan as the endpoint, and healthspan as the secondary endpoint. We’ve got halfway to our enrollment target, which again if you look at the impact of not continuing to fund the project is that we’ll be able to continue the dogs that are in the trial right now and get them all the way through the trial. But the trial would end only half-powered. So it is very unlikely that we would be able to actually detect an effect statistically, even if the clinical trial worked — an unfortunate situation to put all the resources into building this thing, and then not actually allow it to get to completion.
The petition to keep the project going has so far received more than 13,000 signatures. Do you think it’ll have an impact on saving the project?
Kaeberlein: It’s gotten pretty good attention and participation. I think it’s a nice indication that this is important to a lot of people, and hopefully, that will have an impact. The reason why I did that was really, because I didn’t see any alternative, other than, letting the project go away. I think it’s clearly been impactful and important. It’s not only unfortunate, but clearly the wrong decision by the NIA. So I wanted to make that public, with a couple of goals in mind. One would be to hopefully convince [NIH] that this is an important project and with the hope that if NIH doesn’t support the project, that philanthropic donors may step forward, at least until additional funds can be secured.
What else are you doing to attract philanthropic dollars?
Kaeberlein: So Daniel, Kate Creevy, and myself, the three co-founders, have created a nonprofit called the Dog Aging Institute. We are awaiting the 501(c)(3) determination from the IRS, so that people get tax benefits for their donations. The institute is not solely dedicated to funding the project, it is about supporting research to understand the biology of aging in dogs with the goal of improving healthy longevity in dogs and also in people. So certainly, research outside of the project could be supported by the institute.
Since losing the funding, you mentioned you received almost $20,000 in small donations. Have any large donors stepped up?
Kaeberlein: No large donors at this point, but again that was partly why I felt like it was important to let people know that this was a challenge the project was facing. I think, if nobody said anything, the NIH grant would just run out and then we’d be stuck, right? And one of the challenges is with the timeline here. Even if another grant could be written or a different funding source could be found like ARPA-H, or other federal funding sources, those will take 12 to 18 months from the time you write the grant until you are actually funded. So it’s just not realistic to expect that the project will be able to continue for that long without additional support.
What gives you hope as you look ahead at the future of the project?
Promislow: I’m enthusiastic and optimistic and want our participants to know that the sky is not falling. We’re just facing challenges and I actually see it as a real opportunity. We’ve been thinking for a long time about creating a [nonprofit] institute, and facing this funding challenge helped us realize the importance of moving ahead quickly because there’s so much exciting science that we can do with an institute that is hard to do with NIH funding. It’s hard to fund very risky projects. Reviewers are often quite risk averse. And it’s hard to fund long-term projects because of the five-year cycle. So we see [the Dog Aging Institute] as complementary to federal funding. We see huge potential in the kinds of things that we can accomplish with the institute.