Dogs Key to Curing Spine Defects in Humans?

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People do lots of strange things for the love their dogs.

For Dr. Noa Safra, her obsession with Weimaraners, and what was going on inside the first puppies she bred, has led to a career that may help deliver fewer babies with Spina Bifida.

She saw strange mobility issues in that first litter.

“The puppies were unable to move to walk like normal dogs. They were dragging their rear ends and when they became older and stronger, they were hopping like bunnies,” Safra said.

The dogs had a spinal condition that relates closely in humans to Spina Bifida – the most common permanently disabling birth defect in the U.S.

Those affected can suffer intense pain, mobility problems, endure multiple surgeries and face mental and social challenges over their lifetimes.

While the condition in humans is complex, in dogs it’s simple. That makes the animals the perfect model for research.

Fifteen years ago, Safra could only find genetic research from the 1960’s detailing the dog’s condition.

“But nobody knew the mutation that was in the gene … and I was really intrigued,” she said.

That intrigue motivated Safra and her team at UC Davis to pinpoint the mutation or error Safra isolated in the DNA of affected Weimaraners.

“Before our research, it was not on the map. Nobody was looking into that gene,” Safra said.

That finding in a pooch, made a map if you will, for the pediatric researchers on Safra’s team.

They’ve already been able to find the same defect on the matching human gene – and if you know where a problem is, the thought is you have a better shot at fixing it.

Doses of folic acid for expectant mothers are recommended to prevent Spina Bifida, but more research is needed to find a cure.

The gene connection made at UC Davis was funded in part by grants made from the purchase of memorial bricks for beloved pets at the school’s Center for Companion Animal Heatlh.

Contact the center for details about supporting research in that way.

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