Cancer-detection dogs at work in the UK, and with the approval of the National Health Service. Medical Detection Dogs has recently received approval for the UK’s first prostate, kidney and bladder cancer detection trial using the organisation’s specially trained dogs to detect cancer through their sense of smell (olfactory) from samples of urine. So now, not only do we have livestock guarding dogs to help farmers or avalanche search and rescue dogs to search for missing people, man’s best friend could become a valuable collaborator in healthcare diagnosis too.
The role of the canine nose
The United States of America and the United Kingdom are pioneers of cancer-detection dog training through the work of foundations that train up these special dogs, however other European countries have also made progress in this area. For example, the University of Helsinki’s project Wise Nose trained up 12 disease-detecting dogs while in Italy, a few years back, the medical and research centre Humanitas tested dogs as a diagnostic aid in collaboration with the Cynophilist unit of the Italian Army.
The canine nose is far superior to the human one, having 10 times the number of smell receptors. Dogs aren’t able to precisely locate the cancer however, but thanks to their noses’ heightened sensitivity, they are able to find anomalies in the smell of human substances (such as urine) that indicate a potential problem. Just a few months ago, Frankie, a rescue dog, ‘assistant’ to researchers at the University of Arkansas found fame by successfully sniffing our thyroid cancer in 30 out of 34 patient samples. Frankie was trained to lie down when he sensed ‘cancer’ in patient samples and turn away when the urine appeared clean. Similar tests were also carried out with prostate, breast and bladder cancer.
The use of cancer-detection dogs: an opportunity for new discoveries
The idea of dogs doing the rounds of hospital wards alongside the doctors is a little far fetched: however, it seems our four-legged friends may be used to sniff patient samples for disease detection in the very near future whether in the places they are trained or in special laboratories. And, as demonstrated by Frankie, there is no distinction between pedigree or shelter dogs as to their inbuilt talent: it’s the nose, not pedigree that counts! As well as aiming to make clinical examinations less invasive, the ultimate ambition of these studies, is to understand exactly how dogs are able to find tumours. Then, in the future it may be possible to develop an electronic nose similar to the canine one. This medical advancement may still be a long way off: but what is certain is that fact that dogs have so much more potential than previously thought.
Photo: The Guardian