At 13 and 11 years old, my dogs Ralph and Radar are certified seniors. Though they’re both in good shape, they’ve slowed down considerably in their old age, and will continue to do so as time goes by. I do everything I can to help my dogs live longer; the idea of giving them a simple pill that might improve their health, increase their energy, and keep them around longer is incredibly tempting. And rapamycin may just be that pill.
An antibiotic used to treat human organ transplant patients, rapamycin is currently in the testing stages to determine how it affects dogs as they age.
Read on to learn more about this powerful little pill that just might help dogs—and their human caretakers—live longer, healthier lives.
What is Rapamycin
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Rapamycin is an antifungal antibiotic first discovered half a century ago in a soil sample collected from Easter Island. Through years of research, a team of Canadian scientists determined that rapamycin had powerful immunosuppressant properties. In 1999, the FDA approved it for use in human organ transplant patients, helping their bodies accept their new organs. A few years later, rapamycin was approved as an ingredient in some anti-cancer drugs because it suppresses the division of cells.
So what does all this have to do with aging dogs? In 2009, a study of lab mice treated with rapamycin showed that the drug extended their lives up to 30%. Mice and dogs may not look much alike, but they’re mammals with similar body systems, and scientists hypothesized that it might have similar life-extending effects in dogs.
In 2015, biologists at the University of Washington launched the Dog Aging Project, aimed at studying the aging process and extending healthy longevity in dogs. The Project hopes their study will also help determine if rapamycin may have life-extending properties for human beings.
According to the scientists behind the Dog Aging Project, dogs are the perfect candidates to try rapamycin because they age more rapidly than humans, so the effect of the drug is more measurable in a shorter amount of time. A human study would need to be conducted over 10 years, compared to 2-4 years in dogs.
If all this sounds a little bit like humans are exploiting their pets for medical research…well, that’s one way to look at it. But the biologists studying rapamycin in dogs are taking every precaution to ensure their test subjects are happy, well-loved family pets. While they’re curious about the implications for humans, they’re particularly concerned with making life better for dogs.
The first round of the study wrapped up in spring of 2014, after 24 middle-aged dogs received low doses of rapamycin over a period of 10 weeks. Throughout the study, the researchers took echocardiograms to look for changes in the animal’s heart function.
The Effects of Rapamycin in Dogs
According to a presentation from Dog Aging Project co-founder Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, reported by the New York Times, rapamycin had a measurable, positive impact on study participants. The dogs who took the drug during the initial 10-week trial showed heart functionality that either improved or remained the same, and none of them declined in health. Best of all, there were no observable side-effects.
Scientists aren’t sure exactly what rapamycin is doing in dogs’ bodies at a cellular level, but they’re excited about the results. In an interview with Fusion, Dr. Kaeberlein said:
“It is almost certain that rapamycin can slow the effects of aging in dogs and people. The only question is whether it can slow aging with doses that don’t have significant side effects.”
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The idea of a simple pill that might extend our best friends’ lives is captivating, and the Dog Aging Project study is certainly promising. But rapamycin comes with a long list of potential side effects for people, including diabetes and infections, and while the dose given to dogs in this study is significantly smaller than the human dose, the jury is still out on how safe it is for them in the long term. It’s important to remember that it’s still in the testing phase.
The Dog Aging Project emphasizes that their rapamycin trial isn’t only about extending dogs’ lives, but improving their overall health as they age. If they continue to get such good results, it’s possible dogs may have a more pleasant, healthier, less-painful decline in health. All dogs go to heaven, eventually, but rapamycin may help ease their journey.
If you’re curious to find out whether your dog is a good candidate for rapamycin, speak with your veterinarian. In the meantime, there are lots of things you can do right now to help your old dog age gracefully. Dogs may not live forever, but they can live life to the fullest in your care.