BY DR. EMILY TRUNNELL
Deep inside the laboratories at Texas A&M University in College Station, golden retrievers and other dogs are suffering from a painful, debilitating disease. Joe Kornegay, an experimenter at Texas A&M, breeds them to have canine muscular dystrophy (MD), which causes progressive muscle wasting, weakness, and eventually, death. He’s been doing this for over 35 years, even though his experiments on dogs haven’t helped cure muscular dystrophy in humans.
These experiments need to end now.
Video recorded inside Kornegay’s laboratory show afflicted dogs struggling to walk, eat and even breathe. The shockingly thin dogs are held in barren metal cells, often alone and without even a blanket. Because of their weakened jaw and esophageal muscles, they struggle to choke down the thin gruel that they’re given and are at great risk for pneumonia from accidentally inhaling it.
During the experiments, Kornegay stretches the dogs’ leg muscles until they tear. Dogs that don’t have the disease but are used for breeding pace frantically back and forth and bite the bars of the cages in frustration.
Texas A&M has attempted to mislead the public about this horrific operation. Officials have asserted that, because dogs in the video can be seen wagging their tails, they must be happy. But anyone with basic knowledge of canine behavior understands that dogs kept in even the most abysmal conditions will wag their tails at an approaching human, hoping for some comfort and relief. The university has also attempted to deny that it is breeding these dogs to be sick, claiming the animals are “already affected by this disease.” This is despite numerous publications and internal documents detailing deliberate breeding, including artificial insemination, to produce sick animals.
The golden retrievers born with canine MD are too weak to suckle properly, resulting in stunted growth. By six-weeks of age, their hind legs have shifted forward, making them unsteady on their feet, and they have difficulty opening their mouths. By 10 weeks, stiffness and weakness make moving at all difficult and they salivate excessively and struggle to swallow. In his publications, Kornegay discusses the fact that 20 to 30 percent of puppies born with canine MD die as newborns, so he must maintain at least 10 dogs that carry the MD gene for breeding in order to produce the number of puppies he wants for his experiments. Even though he admits that “data derived from (animal) models do not uniformly translate to (muscular dystrophy) patients,” he continues to breed dogs to have this crippling and painful disease.
While these animals are suffering and dying in Texas A&M’s useless experiments, children with MD are suffering and dying, too. Fortunately, scientific and technological innovations are now enabling researchers to study the disease in ways that are human-relevant and animal-free. Using patient-derived stem cells allows scientists to study naturally diseased human cells and develop individualized treatments. Human muscle satellite cells can be used to generate large amounts of human muscle tissue for drug screening, engraftment or other therapies, and muscles-on-chips can mimic the precise human muscle microenvironment. Importantly, because these methods have human — not canine — genetics at their foundation, they offer MD patients real hope for effective treatments and perhaps even a cure.
Texas A&M is doing wrong by MD patients and their families, and it’s doing wrong by “man’s best friend.” The university must end its canine MD breeding program. Instead, it should adopt modern, human-relevant research strategies and let the remaining dogs live out the rest of their lives in the peace and comfort of loving homes.