NIA’s decision to defund Dog Aging Project ‘unjust’

Leading aging researcher calls for decision to be reversed, while seeking alternative sources of funding for major aging study.

Last month, with things just starting to wind down for the holidays, renowned aging scientist Dr Matt Kaeberlein dropped a bombshell on social media, revealing that the National Institute on Aging had “inexplicably” withdrawn its funding support for the Dog Aging Project. Since its inception in 2014, the large-scale project has been seeking to demonstrate that companion dogs can provide a compelling model for aging and age-related disease in humans – and it’s been making good progress.

Over the years, the initiative has been credited with becoming the world’s largest longitudinal study of aging, and has produced a wealth of compelling data, with Kaeberlein calling it “one of the most influential, productive and impactful NIH supported projects over the past 5 years.” All of which makes it even more baffling as to how the funding body arrived at the decision to withdraw its support.

Longevity.Technology: With around 50,000 dogs and owners now involved, the Dog Aging Project has assembled the world’s largest companion dog dataset as it seeks to “define, explain, and ameliorate” the effects of aging – in both dogs and humans. For Kaeberlein and project co-founders Daniel Promislow and Kate Creevy, the focus is now all about ensuring the future of the initiative. An online petition has already collected nearly 10,000 signatures, and the longevity field has rallied behind calls for the NIH to rethink its decision. We caught up with Kaeberlein to learn more about the recent events and what the road ahead looks like.

As things stand, as of the end of May, the National Institute on Aging will no longer be funding the Dog Aging Project. While the loss of its primary source of funding may sound like a death knell for the project, Kaeberlein is quick to stress that there are no immediate changes to the program.

Dr Matt Kaeberlein is co-founder of the Dog Aging Project

“The other founders and I are going to do everything we possibly can to keep the project running,” he says. “The project is not going to go away immediately, but we are clearly facing some very real challenges. If that funding goes away, and no additional funding is realised, then the future of the project is uncertain. Certainly, there would need to be a dramatic downsizing, and I don’t know if the project would survive that.”

It was facing up to these realities that prompted Kaeberlein to go public with the information.

“I felt like the only way that we could salvage the situation and get to where we need to be was to make sure that people know what’s happening,” he explains, before revealing that the founders are pursuing two main strategies to resolve the situation.

“One, we’re going to try to convince NIA or NIH that they should not pull funding – and certainly not pull funding without at least ensuring the opportunity for the project to continue. And two, we’re going to try to raise money from donors and potentially other sources outside of the NIH.”

An ‘unjust’ decision

Kaeberlein’s first step was to create the online petition addressed to Dr Monica Bertagnolli, director of the National Institutes of Health.

“I wanted to inform her of the situation and try to help her understand how important the Dog Aging Project is, and hopefully encourage her to take steps to ensure that there is some ongoing funding for it,” he says. “I also wanted to inform her about the, in my view, unjust decision by NIA.”

“If you look at the metrics of what the project has accomplished to date, there is simply no reasonable explanation for not continuing to fund the project, in terms of impact, milestones achieved, and its importance to the 50,000 Americans who are now active participants in biomedical research on aging because of the Dog Aging Project.”

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Dog Aging Project participant Rex meets Dr Bobbie Ditzler at the Texas A&M University center.

The founders have also taken the first steps on their parallel strategy to raise money from other sources, by filing to create a non-profit organization called the Dog Aging Institute that funds research on canine biology of aging.

“We expect that it’s just a formality to get this status, and then that will allow individuals, or other organisations who would like to support the Dog Aging Project, to donate funds to support it,” says Kaeberlein. “We will be making a push around this in January.”

Between the two approaches, the project founders hope to be able to secure sufficient funding to maintain the project at somewhere close to its current level after the end of May, when the NIA funding is scheduled to end.

Potential problems with the review process at NIA

So, what was it that led to the NIA’s decision to defund the project? Kaeberlein is cautious when answering this.

“I have avoided getting too much into the process because I have to be careful what I say,” he says. “Anybody who has ever dealt with the federal funding agencies, knows there are different processes and mechanisms in place for renewals of grants. The Dog Aging Project grant proposal was reviewed by a panel of probably seven or eight people, and I would simply say that, in my opinion, there were many irregularities in this process that you don’t see typically.”

Kaeberlein explains that the challenge with all of this is that there is “no mechanism” within NIA or NIH to deal with improper or irregular review processes in a timely manner.

“Their response is to say that there’s nothing they can do, and that we need to resubmit the grant,” he says. “The problem with that is that’s going to be a year from now before a decision is made on that grant, and the Dog Aging Project will not be here a year from now without funding.”

‘Fix the decision’

While a research project facing federal funding challenges is by no means unique, Kaeberlein believes the Dog Aging Project is worthy of special consideration.

“If you just look at the data, look at the metrics, and compare it to any other NIA-funded project at this scale, the Dog Aging Project has over performed at every possible metric you look at. And did it in the context of a global pandemic.” 

Kaeberlein says that NIA does have options at its disposal to fund special projects and has used such mechanisms in the past. For example, the NIA Director has discretionary funds that could be used to support the Dog Aging Project or could request that the NIA Council consider funding the project on its merits.  

“There is just no reasonable or rational explanation for not continuing to support this project based on outcomes to date,” he says. “We can get into arguments about the process, and I very much believe the process at NIA needs to be improved, but I’d rather focus on securing a future for the Dog Aging Project. My point is that the decision to simply withdraw all support for the project can’t be justified. The decision is wrong – fix the decision.

“Saving the Dog Aging Project is what’s important right now.”