The NC State professor's mission is to better care for elderly dogs -- and their owners --

The NC State professor’s mission is to better care for elderly dogs — and their owners —

Raleigh – Dogs have a lot to teach us. In addition to the important life lessons we learn from our pets about friendship, joy, and caring for others, dogs also provide veterinary researchers with a good model for understanding the effects of aging on humans.

“Dogs allow you to look at the chronic impact of environmental factors and social factors in a really unique way,” he said. Natasha Olby, Professor of Neurology and Chair Dr. Cade M. Gissing and subject M. Davidson Distinguished Gerontologist in College of Veterinary Medicine (bmw). “We believe that all of the research we do on aging is very relevant to people.”

This study of aging, or gerontology, is one aspect of Olby’s canine research at CVM. Her Endowed Chair in Gerontology—currently the only position of its kind in a veterinary school with an associated research program—provides resources for her research in neurology and neurodegenerative diseases in dogs.

Olby has also introduced Geriatrics into the CVM curriculum, which helps set it apart from other veterinary schools by its degree of focus on this important and growing field. As dogs age along with human lifespan, there is an increasing need to study the effects of aging on both dogs and humans.

“One of the biggest challenges modern society faces is maintaining health as well as lifespan,” Olby said. “Now, with improved pet health care, dogs are living longer and we face the exact same challenge [as we do with people]. I think it’s very important that we don’t say, “They’re just getting older,” but that we pay due attention to the process, understand the things we can change in the process and develop our understanding of aging in general. “

Patient treatment search

The unifying theme of all Olby’s research – which also includes Spinal cord injurymapping genetic diseases, and a neurodevelopmental disorder called Chiari-like malformations—is that she works exclusively with hospital patients.

Unlike the traditional rodent model for studying disease, in which a disease is introduced into mice or rats in a tightly controlled laboratory environment, the initial research is done on elderly dogs who live with people in their homes. Her subjects are influenced by the same social and environmental factors that affect people as they age, because they live with people. They are exposed to the same air we breathe, often the same food we eat, the amount of exercise we engage in, the chemicals in our environments and the social structures of our families.

“There’s a lot of opportunity out there because dogs are such a great role model for humans,” said Kate Simon, DVM/Ph.D. A student working in Olby’s lab. “There’s a lot of work in cognition, dementia and even just aging, in the field of human medicine. We see all the same things happening in dogs. We might perceive or measure them a little differently, or call them a little different things, but it’s all still happening.”

Olby began her canine neurosedation program in 2018 with the initial goal of developing protocols that are safe and will not harm dogs in any way. She wanted to find ways to identify the changes that can be seen in dogs as they age, such as mobility, postural stability, cognitive functioning, vision, hearing, and sense of smell. Through that study, Olby and her team have been able to publish several research papers about what happens to dogs as they age, and they now have enough baseline data for clinical trials.

Natasha Olby fosters a dog who wears a device with wheels to help him walk.

An Extraordinary Difference: Dr. Natasha Olby

One clinical trial, run by Olby and assistant professor of behavioral medicine margaret groen, is currently underway to test the effect of two supplements on geriatric dogs. One boosts cellular levels of an enzyme that aids in metabolism, which naturally decreases as dogs get older. The other supplement kills senescent cells, or “zombie cells” that were supposed to die but didn’t, which consume the enzyme and cause inflammation.

“It was a very exciting running experience,” Olby said. “We’re learning a lot about experimenting with this population of very elderly dogs, with a focus on safely developing new therapies.”

Simon helps run This clinical trial, which relies heavily on dog owners to complete regular questionnaires about their perception of their dogs’ quality of life, cognition and mobility in the home. Working on this experience increased her appreciation and affinity for working with pet owners, as she saw firsthand the bonds between them and their pets.

Kate Simon holds a treat for a leashed dog.
Kate Simon holds a treat while working with a dog in the lab.
DVM/PhD. Student Kate Simon conducts cognitive tests with two participants in a clinical trial currently being run by Natasha Olby and Margaret Groene.

“You see a great deal of care and owners really want to be able to get the best medicine, the best health and the best care in the last phase of their lives,” said Simon. “I just love seeing that.

She added, “Because this is something very different from human medicine and veterinary medicine, which is end of life and quality of care, and our understanding of geriatrics.” “Dogs have someone who is their agent, and that’s a lot of what the owner thinks about and what the owner perceives their quality of life to be. So we try to match that to what we observe objectively in the clinic, through our tests and through gait analysis, and how that lines up with what owners see more subjectively.” .

Results and skills that translate

Much of Olby’s research on canine aging increases our understanding of the aging process in humans. For example, one disease Olby’s lab has studied in dogs is degenerative myelopathy, which results from a genetic mutation that manifests itself with age and is comparable to the inherited form of Lou Gehrig’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), in humans. A gene therapy trial they conducted for degenerative myelopathy provided an opportunity to study the naturally occurring dog model of ALS in people while developing new therapies for dogs.

This comparative or translational nature of Olby’s research, and the wealth of research being done in NC State, was part of what motivated Simon to attend vet school here. As a DVM/PhD combined. Freshman, studying to become a veterinarian while completing her Ph.D Comparative Biomedical Sciences.

Corey Sims works with a dog in the Veterinary College's rehabilitation unit.

Learn more about the opportunities available to students in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“I think NC really embodies One Health and Comparative Medicine,” Simon said. It seems like a perfect fit and everything I could ask for.

“It’s really great to be at an institution that cares so much about research and really supports students who come in with this background and want to pursue that, or haven’t been able to find the opportunity yet.”

There are opportunities for students at all stages of their higher education journey to participate in research at CVM. Olby has students from outside the college join her lab as well, who are interested in science but want to work with naturally occurring diseases rather than induced diseases. For students interested in veterinary medicine, I stress, there are many possible careers beyond the small animal veterinary path they might immediately imagine—although working with humanity’s best friends is always an in-demand option.

“Veterinary medicine is the degree that will allow you to have a career that can take almost infinite different directions,” Olby said. You can go to public health. You could be an epidemiologist. You could be a pathologist. You can work in society, in shelters. You can go and report to the Department of Defense about biological warfare. A veterinary degree will give you such good training in so many different fields that you might suddenly find all kinds of different career options very exciting for you.”

(c) NCSU

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