One key aspect of our research at the Dog Aging Project involves collecting biological samples from dogs who are members of the Precision Cohort, a subset of dogs in the Pack. The collection of these samples is also one of the most complex parts of the project. In this blog post, we’ll give you an overview of this process.
The Precision Cohort Experience
Once a participant has been invited (based on specific criteria) to join the Precision Cohort and has signed the Informed Owner Consent Form and has completed their DNA kit, they will be directed to their personal research portal where they can tell us which month they want to receive their Sample Kit.
Precision Cohort members will be asked to send in biological samples every year for the duration of the project. We want people to pick a month that is convenient, and ideally, that coincides with their dog’s annual veterinary visit. (This can help reduce or eliminate extra costs for participants.)
Once the participant selects a month, our team will guide them through the process of making their Sample Kit appointment(s) with their primary care veterinarian. Dogs over 15 pounds only need one visit, but smaller dogs need to have the biological samples collected over two visits because of the volume of blood collected for the study.
When collecting these samples, the first and most important member of our team is the participant’s primary care veterinarian, who will collect the biological samples and ship them to the Dog Aging Project. The primary care veterinarian will also be critical in helping to evaluate the results of some of these tests. Just like a primary care medical doctor knows if a test result is normal or abnormal for a human patient, veterinarians are the experts in what is normal for their patients.
About two weeks prior to the Sample Kit appointment, our team will ship a Sample Kit to the participant. This kit contains all the necessary equipment and instructions to enable the primary care veterinarian to collect and store the biological samples. It may seem like a lot of tubes and envelopes and other paraphernalia, but we’re planning to do a lot of science with these samples!
The kit is designed to divide the samples into transportable units that can be sent to all of our partnering labs so we collect the maximum amount of information with the minimal amount of disruption to our awesome canine participants. Make sure to check out future posts in this series for more info on the Sample Kit veterinary visit.
Tracking the Samples
On the same day that the samples are collected, the primary care veterinarian (or sometimes the participant) will send the Sample Kit back to the Texas A&M Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (TVMDL) via overnight shipping. It is critically important that we receive the samples as soon as possible (and on an ice pack we provide!) so that they are in the best possible condition for analysis.
It’s tragic when a delay happens in the shipping process because we have to discard these precious samples. No one on our team wants that to happen! We’re lucky to have an amazing Quality Assurance team on the job.
Once the samples arrive at Texas A&M, the samples are sorted and divided, according to the type of sample and the type of analysis being performed on each. Each sample type is evaluated in the Dog Aging Project’s Partner Laboratories by expert scientists who specialize in very specific kinds of research.
Any sample that is not destined for one of these specific laboratories will be sent to the Dog Aging Project Biobank housed at the Cornell Veterinary Biobank at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Samples that are stored at the Biobank will be shared with other scientists around the world.
Specific Samples, Specific Science
From each type of sample, we can learn different things that can help us find ways to improve the healthspan of all dogs. From blood samples, we can look at the overall health of the dog. Just like when people get their blood drawn at the doctor’s office during annual check-ups, veterinarians use blood samples to test for infections or detect long-term diseases.
In addition to these normal diagnostics, our researchers will also be performing more in-depth biochemical analyses on blood samples to look at different factors that might help influence health in our companion dogs.
From urine samples, our team can assess the overall health of the dog’s bladder and kidneys, test for infection, assess hydration, and check for chronic conditions. From fecal samples, experts can characterize the gut microbiome in the digestive system and investigate the role it plays in healthy aging.
Hair samples can be used to look at a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone that is directly connected to stress. Just like humans, when a dog becomes stressed, this hormone rises, and evidence of elevated hormone level, particularly if it occurs for a long period of time, can be found in hair follicles.
In short, the biological samples collected from the canine participants of the Precision Cohort allow our team to do an incredible amount of research, which will help us characterize the physiological and biochemical aspects of healthy aging in dogs. In future posts that are part of our Inside Precision series, we will take a deeper dive into the research being conducted at each of our specialized laboratories. You’ll meet the scientists doing the work and understand what they hope to learn from these critically important biological samples!
Dr. Amanda Tinkle