A massive pet ‘biobank’ will study why cats and dogs get sick

Help Wanted: Mars Petcare is looking for 10,000 dogs and 10,000 cats for a biobank — an aggregation of biological samples, images and other data — that aims to improve the health of pets by detecting diseases earlier.

Why is this important: Compared to human biobankthe animal biobank is at its beginnings. This initiative is perhaps the largest and most ambitious yet to try to determine what triggers the disease in healthy pets by sifting through genomic patterns.

  • “The overall goal is to improve future pet care and health outcomes, and improve the lifespan and quality of life of our pets,” says Kay O’ Donnell, vice president of the Waltham Petcare Science Institute, a division of Mars Caring for a Pet.

Driving the news: Mars Inc., the giant conglomerate that makes M&Ms and Snickers, has a division that runs chains of veterinary hospitals and makes products like Pedigree dog food and Iams cat food. This unit recently announcement the new biobank and called for the participation of dogs and cats in the United States.

  • Four-legged volunteers will donate blood and faeces samples every year for 10 years – and in return will receive free veterinary care, genetic testing and activity monitoring.
  • Using “longitudinal physiological data from collected samples”, the study will seek to “understand the differences between pets that are healthy as they age and pets that develop disease”, Mars Petcare said in a press release.
  • While there are other animal biobanks, “they either target a specific disease or a specific breed,” O’Donnell told Axios. “This will be the first biobank of cats and dogs in the general population,” recruiting purebred dogs and mutts.

Details: Mars is looking for healthy dogs and cats between the ages of 6 months and 10 years old. Registeranimals must be customers of select Mars Petcare veterinary facilities, including VCA and Banfield veterinary hospitals.

  • Over the decade-long study of the pets, “some of them will continue to be healthy and others will develop disease,” O’Donnell notes.
  • Under the supervision of the biobank, there will be “early recognition of changes, and therefore the ability to intervene early and improve outcomes,” she said.

The big picture: Americans who love pets are invest more in veterinary care and seek more genetic information about their roommates – buy DNA kits to find out more about their ancestry and medical issues, for example.

  • At the same time, advances in microbiome research and personalized medicine are helping doctors and scientists detect and treat disorders earlier and more effectively, in both humans and animals.

Meanwhile, the world of animal biobanks is getting organized and sophisticated.

  • A consortium Veterinary schools that manage biobanks were set up in 2014 to work in partnership with medical faculties on research.
  • Among animal biobanks, “a lot of them are investing in really amazing hypotheses,” says Marta Castelhano, director of the Cornell Veterinary Biobank (now the first biobank in the world to receive accreditationin 2019).

Some interesting examples:

Between the lines: As animal biobanks accumulate specimens, they “enhance the potential of those samples to translate into innovation in research – for the good of the animals and humans,” Castelhano told Axios.

And after: The more samples Mars Petcare can collect and analyze, the more information it will glean over time, especially about rarer diseases that smaller studies with fewer samples cannot fully capture.

  • “Our estimate is that by grades 3 through 4 we will have critical mass,” O’Donnell said. “We will be able to describe the populations and release the genome sequences to the public domain before that.”