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Photo: AZPM

Researchers study the genetic traits of purebred dogs to better understand human diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer.

Because the human genome is so varied and complex, it is difficult for researchers to find the genetic factors that lead to diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. But man’s best friend may soon change that.

"It’s been a real tough battle for neuroscientists to understand the genetic drivers behind neurological disease, probably because of our genetic complexity," says Dr. Matthew Huentelman, an associate professor for the Translational Genomic Research Institute or TGen in Phoenix, Ariz. "We are really excited because now the canine presents a new place for us to focus, a way to weed through some of the 'noise,' if you will, in the genome complexity in the human.”

Veterinarians, dog owners and dog breeders are all contributing to the research simply by taking a swab of saliva from their dog's mouth for a DNA sample that can be analyzed at TGen's labs. Only purebreds are being tested because they have less genetic variability.

Valana Wells is a renowned breeder of the Clumber Spaniel a breed that dates back to the 1800’s in England.

“Using dogs is useful because they reproduce much faster at a much younger age than we do," she says, "therefore, researchers can see many more generations of genome in a much quicker time."

Wells also teaches aerospace engineering at Arizona State University and has an understanding and appreciation for what is involved in scientific research.

"With breakthroughs in technology we are starting to be able to predict a lot better in biological systems then we ever could before, so I think there is a great deal of potential to understand our best friend," she says. "They certainly are our best companion in many ways, but we can also use them to help us fight pretty devastating genetic diseases."

To that end, dogs groomed at PetSmart could one day--and with the permission of their owners--receive cheek swabs that would contribute to this canine genomic study.

"We are going to advance dog medicine," says Phil Francis, executive chairman of PetSmart Inc. "But an equally important societal benefit is, we are going to collapse timetables and reduce costs to make faster advances in cancer research for humans."