Designer Genes?

This week I was visited by CBS News who wanted to learn more about our clinic and ongoing studies involving dogs with compulsive disorders. In the center-piece interview, senior correspondent Richard Schlesinger asked me questions about behavior problems we see and quizzed me about animal emotions. Mr. Schlesinger is a dedicated dog owner so there was no tongue-in-cheek going on here – he just wanted me to explain the evidence to viewers. Then we got on to the main subject - where we were at with our genetic research on canine obsessive-compulsive disorder (ocd).

The breeds we are currently studying, I told him, are Doberman pinschers and bull terriers (though there may be more to come). The conditions of interest were flank sucking and tail chasing, respectively. Both these behaviors appear to have genetic components though environment also clearly plays a role in their expression. Mr. Schlesinger was fascinated by the thought that a gene might underlie a behavior and wondered whether, if the gene was found, it might be the same one that causes ocd in people. I told him we were banking on that (not literally, of course). Ocd affects 2-3 percent of the global population of humans and about the same percentage of canines, so it is quite a significant condition that can cause much grief and suffering, even physical injury. If we could find the gene that causes it, I mused, we could devise tests to predict it and help modify people their dog’s environment to prevent the condition’s full expression. Knowing the gene would also help develop more targeted drug treatments and, down the road, gene therapy. After my session with Mr. Schlesinger I brought him to co-researcher Dr Alice Moon-Fanelli’s office so that he could see some of the pedigrees we had developed.

The next day we headed to the University of Massachusetts where he spoke with geneticist (and neurologist) Dr. Edward Ginns, who informed him about the molecular genetic end of our studies. The DNA samples we have so far, hundreds of them, all reside at “UMass” and have been being analyzed for certain “candidate genes” (ones that might have some loose connection with ocd in people – though the true genetic underpinning has yet to be determined). We also mentioned our next step, a whole genome scan of our dog DNA under the direction of geneticists Dr. Kerstin Lindblad-Toh and Elinor Karlsson using a special “chip” developed by them at MIT’s Broad Institute.

The bottom line: we’re really cooking on this project, which we hope will help dog’s, dog owners and breeder and, one day, maybe even people affected by ocd too. If anyone is interested in seeing the piece CBS is producing, it is scheduled to air on a CBS health show hosted by Charles Osgood on Sunday October 14th 2007 in the 9am to 10.30am slot and it may be accessible on their website after that. I hope the message comes across loud and clear. Fingers crossed for a successful airing!

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