In December, Audrey Ruple, associate professor of quantitative epidemiology at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, delivered a talk at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as part of their workshop titled “The Role of Companion Animals as Sentinels for Predicting Environmental Exposure Effects on Aging and Cancer Susceptibility in Humans.”

The mission of the National Academies is to research and advise the United States government on topics of national importance. During the height of the Civil War in 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed an Act of Incorporation that established the National Academy of Sciences. The  National Academy of Engineering was established in 1964, and the Institute of Medicine was established 1970, becoming the National Academy of Medicine in 2015. 

The academies function as a private nonprofit organization funded mostly by Congress and federal agencies through grants and contracts. Over 6,300 scientists, engineers, and health professionals make up the academies today, conducting research and forming reports that have the potential to influence policy. 

The academies’ workshops bring together a group of scientists from across disciplines to discuss a central topic. 

“It’s a huge honor to be asked to speak. As a mid-career researcher, it is especially exciting to have the potential to steer policy and funding for further research,” said Ruple. 

Ruple recently joined the college after seven years as an assistant and associate professor of One Health epidemiology at Purdue University. She earned her bachelor's degree in microbiology, master's degree in epidemiology, and D.V.M. from Colorado State University, where she also earned her Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology with a specialization in cancer biology. 

Ruple conducts translational research, studying cancer in dogs to help us study cancer in humans. The academy invited her to talk about the environmental aspects of risks associated with cancer and aging in dogs. 

Dogs are good subjects for translational cancer research for a number of reasons. For one, they develop cancer about 10 times more often than humans. The cancers they develop are often cancers humans develop, and dogs and humans share about 650 mega-base pairs of shared genome. Moreover, dogs and humans share the same spaces, so environmental factors that affect dogs also affect humans. 

“Most dogs now live inside people’s homes. They’re sleeping in our beds, drinking our water, eating our table scraps. These are dogs that are experiencing our environments — and all of our environmental contaminants and carcinogens,” said Ruple. 

She pointed out that researchers identified factors such as pesticide exposure and secondhand smoke exposure as cancer risks in dogs years before these risks were studied in humans. 

During the workshop, Ruple discussed the state of the science and what we know about environmental risks, particularly cancer-causing ones. 

Ruple drew upon her previous work on how canine lymphoma overlies with incidence of human lymphoma and from her work with the Dog Aging Project, on which she is a member of the research team. The Dog Aging Project is an ongoing, 100,000-dog study to determine the biological and environmental components of dog aging. It is the largest cohort of dogs ever studied.

“By learning more about the impact of the environment in the biology of aging and cancer outcomes, we’re allowing both humans and dogs to live longer, healthier lives together,” said Ruple.

 

— Written by Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. '21, a writer with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

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