Dogs Sniffing Out Cancer

Some people with pound pups have shirts or bumper stickers that read “Who Rescued Whom?” They don’t realize that the idea of a dog saving their life is not far fetched. Recent studies show that dogs are adept at sniffing out cancer cells long before people realize they have a problem.

Two newer studies show that dogs can detect prostate cancer and ovarian cancer using their phenomenal olfactory senses. These are just the latest medical research studies that show that a Labrador may be as accurate – or better – than a lab test at finding out if a human has cancer. Researchers are beginning to believe that canines can be trained to identify cancer in people. Although, it is unclear how dogs can be added to patient testing process.

The dogs used in the prostate cancer study at Istituto Clinico Humanitas in Rozzano, Italy, which was recently presented at the 109th annual American Urological Association Scientific Meeting, had an accuracy rate of 98 percent. They were also immediate at determining their results. They either sniffed the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into urine by prostate tumors or they did not.

The 677 study human participants were placed in two groups: those with prostate cancer and those without. The cancer group included a range of cancer patients from those with a very low risk to those whose cancer had metastasized throughout their body. Two dogs conducted the sniff tests on the participants’ urine in an environment that was free of other odors. One dog had a 99 percent accuracy rate in picking out the people with cancer, the other was 97 percent accurate.

Noting that their research showed that volatile organic compounds in urine can be a means of cancer detection, Michigan doctor Brian Stork, of West Shore Urology, acknowledged that the idea of using dogs for sniffing out the cancerous compounds would not have been considered possible a decade or so ago. He added that man’s best friend could truly save a man’s life.

In a different study, a University of Pennsylvania research team worked with a dog to identify ovarian cancer. The canine was more than 90 percent successful in smelling ovarian cancer in tissue samples. If this can lead to a broader use, it would be remarkable. There is no effective test today for the early detection of ovarian cancer.

Pennsylvania researchers are now conducting more research with dogs and ovarian cancer, particularly to see if the canines can find it in tissue and/or blood samples. They are trying to determine if there is a marker that can be identified in the blood of women with ovarian cancer that can become a detection system. According to Cindy Otto, director of the school’s Penn Vet Working Dog Center, “We’re using the dogs because we know the dogs are much more sensitive than any of our chemical techniques.”

The project, which began last year, is training the dogs using tissue samples from both cancerous ovaries and those that are not. Although the three dogs being used did learn to recognize cancerous tissue samples, the researchers are working now on training the dogs to react to blood samples.

Other research has shown comparable results for dogs and other cancers. A limited study, published in the Journal of Integrative Cancer Therapies, showed dogs having a 99 percent effective rate in detecting lung cancer and an 88 percent rate at finding breast tumors.

Dogs have more than 220 million olfactory cells in their remarkable snouts. Humans only have 50 millions. That is why dogs have long been used for search-and-rescue efforts, sniffing out cadavers, looking for drugs, and other efforts that capitalize on the canine’s capabilities.

Determining how to use dogs on a large-scale health care basis is the big issue going forward. Nationally known dog trainer Dina Zaphiris, who is training some canines to detect cancer in humans for federally funded studies, is fighting to get U.S. Food and Drug Administration clearance of a system that would use the unique olfactory talents of dogs in medical care.

While the question of how to use dogs for testing on a broader scale is debated, some researchers are looking for ways to replicate the canine ability to smell disease with either a machine or chemical test. Some chemists, doctors and physicists are trying to develop an “electronic nose” that duplicates a dog’s ability to smell disease because they do not believe using dogs in a clinical setting will be practical.

Zaphiris, however, does not believe medicine or people should accept waiting for development of an electronic nose to mimic the cancer sniffing out ability of a dog. She would like to open canine scent-detection centers that will make the phenomenal snouted animals available to look for cancer outside of research labs.

By Dyanne Weiss

Business Week
Orlando Sentinel
Seattle Times

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