Sometimes, in both humans and dogs, diseases that don't seem to be associated may be. First discovered in 1973, degenerative myelopathy is a spontaneously occurring disease in dogs affecting the spinal cord, and later the nerves and muscles, ultimately leading to paralysis. For years, the cause of this disease has been a mystery.
Veterinary neurologist Joan Coates, associate professor at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, studied the disease, particularly in Pembroke Welsh corgis. A breakthrough arrived when she and colleagues, including Kerstin Linblad-Toh and Claire Wade, molecular genetic researchers at the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, discovered a gene called SOD1 in dogs with degenerative myelopathy. It turns out that same mutated gene is similar to the underlying cause of some forms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig's disease. In dogs, genetic risk factors now can be tested, which will help breeders decrease the presence of the genetic mutation within the breed.
Now that the gene mutation is identified," Coates says, "our long-term goal is to work with human ALS researchers and their molecular therapeutic approaches, which, if safe and work for dogs, may also help people with ALS. All in all, working on both the canine and the human sides simultaneously speeds research to learn more about both of these devastating diseases."