Texas A&M researchers bred sick dogs in hopes of finding human muscular dystrophy cure
College Station, Texas — A colony of golden retrievers and Labrador mixes lives in an unmarked building at Texas A&M. Few Aggies will ever see them, and many of the dogs will never know another home.
The building looks like a pristine dog pound, with aisles of bare metal kennels and slatted floors. The healthy dogs jump and bark loudly, pushing their cold, wet noses between the bars of their cages in sterile, white rooms. The sick dogs are quiet.
Their location is a secret. University officials say the strict confidentiality shields the dogs and their caretakers from overzealous activists.
But animal welfare groups say the dogs are the ones who need protection from the university.
The dogs live on campus because researchers at Texas A&M use them to study Duchenne muscular dystrophy — a degenerative disease that’s terminal for mostly young boys. University scientists are seeking a cure, or at least a meaningful treatment to lengthen lives.
A similar version of the disease naturally occurs in golden retrievers, one of America’s most beloved breeds. Since 2012, Texas A&M has quietly become a world leader on Duchenne animal research. But it’s required the university to breed sick dogs — and sometimes euthanize them — in the name of science.
It’s a controversial means to an end at a time when medical research on dogs and cats is declining. The laboratory attracts a steady stream of protests, harassment and the occasional death threat from activists desperate to shut it down.
But Texas A&M officials are undeterred, motivated by their mission to save human lives.
“What this is is a philosophical divide among those who do not believe in any animal research and those of us who devote our lives to animals, and realize that at this point animal research is still necessary,” said Dr. Eleanor Green, dean of the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “One day, maybe we won’t need it. And it’s becoming less and less, but until that day comes, we believe it’s necessary.”
The secret lab
For seven years, the university has cloaked the laboratory in secrecy, denying visitors, rejecting media interview requests, and in some cases, misrepresenting how researchers obtained the dogs for their studies.
Officials last month granted The Dallas Morning News limited access to the dog colony and lab, but banned a reporter from taking any photos or video.
Most important, researchers and vet school officials want the public to know the dogs are treated with great care.
“These animals are loved from the minute they enter this world to the minute they leave it,” Green said.
School officials also want people to know they’re doing the work with human lives in mind — like Kyle Cox, a 23-year-old graduate student with Duchenne.
Duchenne will kill 1 in 3,500 young boys, tearing slowly away at their muscles and rendering them wheelchair bound by the time they’re 15. Most people born with the disease will die before they reach their 30s.
In dogs, the disease similarly breaks down muscles. They get tired easily, lose their ability to walk and have trouble swallowing food. They’ll live to be about 7 to 9 years old.
In 2012, Dr. Joseph Kornegay, who is considered the father of this line of canine research, was recruited to join Texas A&M’s distinguished veterinary school.
He brought with him more than 70 golden retrievers to start the school’s research colony.
In the building where the dogs live, only a couple of the canines had beds or toys, out of a worry that they will tear them up and ingest the fabric. At least one of the dogs had thick saliva dripping out of its mouth — a symptom of the disease.
With names like Jumba and Bruno, the dogs take turns throughout the day playing outside in a gated, grassy area. On hot days, they’re allowed to splash around in a plastic kiddie pool.
There are roughly 40 dogs on campus, down from about 100. Purebred golden retrievers comprised the original group of dogs, but gradually researchers bred them with Labradors and beagle mixes to diversify the colony. About half have the muscle disease — the other half are either genetic carriers used for breeding, or they’re unaffected dogs born into the lab that are waiting to be adopted.
The operation is being scaled down as a result of Kornegay’s retirement in June and the expiration of many of the grants tied to his work. The university will no longer breed the dogs onsite, instead getting them from other research partners.
Researchers insist the sick dogs aren’t living in pain, they’re just weaker. When the dogs are subjected to muscle strength tests, or when a one-centimeter cubed piece of muscle is surgically biopsied, they’re anesthetized and given painkillers to recover.
Some of the Duchenne dogs will participate in studies that require them to be euthanized when they’re only 6 months old so their tissues can be examined.
The price of progress
Scientists say animal testing is the uncomfortable price of medical advancement.
“Early on in my research, I had to come to terms with the apparent disconnect between loving and caring for dogs and conducting research on them,” Kornegay, who studied Duchenne in dogs for 46 years, said in an emailed statement. “I have frequently attended meetings that have included parents of boys with Duchenne muscular dystrophy and met the boys and young men with the disease. As a parent, I have been compelled to do whatever I could to give them hope and make their lives better.”
Texas A&M officials say they’ve achieved a significant milestone. Their research contributed to a gene therapy for Duchenne that was green lit last year for human clinical trials — a key step before medicine can become available to the public. However, the vast majority of therapies that make it to human clinical trials are never approved by the FDA.
“This is a huge breakthrough,” Green said. “You don’t go to human clinical trials until you’ve shown that they work in animals.”
Vaccines, pacemakers, hip replacements, heart medicine and cancer therapies were all tested on animals. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires animal testing, including the use of a large animal, for therapies before they can be used on humans.
“Yes, there’s a cost to animals, but there’s also a really significant cost to humans if you don’t do this,” said Jim Newman, a spokesman for Americans for Medical Progress. “If you step back and look at the big picture, there’s a huge number of people who are depending on it.”
At the same time, companion animals are being used in testing less frequently. Dogs make up less than half of 1% of the animals used in medical research today. In 2015, about 60,000 dogs were used as part of research or drug testing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — a drop of 71% since 1979.
Matthew Brown, director of the Center for Values in Medicine, Science and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas, said scientists who use animals for research are being asked to consider less intelligent subjects like fish, mice and insects when possible, which has led to the decline in dogs and chimpanzees in research.
“With companion animals, they’re more intelligent, they have more emotionally rich experiences, they have more social and emotional intelligence,” Brown said. “And with dogs in particular, we have purposely bred dogs to be social with humans, to be instinctually trusting of human beings. That’s not ethically insignificant.”
PETA gets involved
The university’s work went largely under the radar for years. But in December 2016, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals declared war on Texas A&M for it. The group released a video of the laboratory alleging that dogs were being tortured.
They showed dogs with ropes of saliva coming from their mouths, and another dog sloppily eating loose wet food they called “gruel” — however, university researchers said, it’s commercial-grade food thinned with water to help the dogs eat it.
The negative attention from activists has caused the school to close itself off to the world, said Dr. Robert Rose, who oversees animal and teaching programs at Texas A&M.
“Do we want to get into this public debate? Or are we more interested in curing diseases?” he asked.
For almost three years, animal rights activists have spotlighted the dog colony, using celebrities including Paul McCartney to pressure the school to shut down the labs.
PETA and other animal activists regularly protest on campus and at fundraisers and board meetings. They picket outside school officials’ homes and send robocalls to students and faculty. They disrupted a graduation and routinely ambush Texas A&M’s social media, overtaking threads meant to recruit and welcome students.
“We’ve had death threats. We get a lot of angry language that comes through over emails,” Green said. “It’s all scary and it’s all interruptive.”
Texas A&M has responded to several media stories about PETA’s latest publicity campaign by denying any cruelty. But they’ve also erroneously denied that they were breeding dogs for research.
School officials told several media organizations across the state and country that the dogs used in research were “already affected” with Duchenne and “not artificially made to be sick.”
And for at least two years, the school said on its website that the dogs “are already affected by this disease.” The page was taken down in June after The News inquired about the inaccuracy.
According to breeding records obtained in a public record request, at least 21 litters, or more than 100 puppies, have been bred at Texas A&M since 2015.
“What they did was the smartest thing a university in their position could do, to misrepresent and lie to get the public on their side,” said Alka Chandna, PETA vice president of laboratory investigations, speculating on their intentions. “There is no defense for what they’re doing — taking golden retrievers to create a whole colony of sick dogs.”
Green said the school is not intentionally trying to be dishonest.
“We certainly want the truth out always, we have never tried to hide the fact that we were breeding the dogs,” she said, adding that any misinformation was the result of a mistake “innocently done” by a former vet school spokesperson.
But the answer isn’t clear to students and alumni, who often are seen defending Texas A&M’s research from PETA on social media by accusing them of lying about the breeding.
“Oh, honey, who hurt you? You really think a highly respected school would do this? Not to mention, have you seen this with your own eyes?” wrote a student at Texas A&M in 2018 in response to tweets about the Duchenne breeding.
“They do not breed them. You’re getting fake facts,” tweeted another person trying to defend the university’s lab.
Villains or heroes?
For Kyle Cox and his family, the researchers — and the dogs — are heroes. Cox was diagnosed with Duchenne as a young boy and doctors say he probably won’t live to be 30.
Cox has been in a wheelchair since he was 11. His lungs are operating at 25% capacity. Recently, he’s lost strength and mobility in his arms to the point that he can’t lift a glass of water, and he can’t get his arms around his mother’s shoulders when she lifts him from his wheelchair.
“That’s hard. You want a hug from your boy, you know?” said his mom, Kristen Cox.
He came to College Station not because of the dog lab, but because he always wanted to be an Aggie. His family learned that the school did Duchenne research only when Kyle Cox was a junior. Kristen Cox immediately asked to meet with its team.
“It really hit me in that moment,” Kristen Cox said about when she met the room full of researchers. “They’re all trying to save my son’s life, and they’re doing it at some risk to themselves.”
The Coxes adopted a healthy golden retriever named Abby from the laboratory and trained her to be a service dog for Kyle. Now Kristen helps connect more of the healthy dogs from the lab to Duchenne families, who have come from across the country to adopt the dogs.
From time to time, the Coxes will try to reason with animal groups. Last year, she attended a PETA meeting intended to raise awareness about the horrors of the lab.
Kristen Cox listened as PETA members played down the significance of the latest gene therapy that could treat Duchenne patients, stressing that 95% of therapies in human clinical trials fail.
She rose to speak to the group.
“For someone in my position, a 5% chance is huge,” Kristen Cox recalled telling them. “And when that first boy gets his cure, it’s going to cure the dogs, too.”