It’s certainly not news that dogs have an exceptionally keen sense of smell. We’ve been studying and testing the capabilities of these super noses since we initially seeked to tame the wild wolf. Thousands of years later, we may have found one of the most beneficial uses for this ability yet– sniffing out early stage cancers.
(Just as a point of comparison: the human nose has 5 million scent receptors while a dog’s has about 300 million.)
Not long ago, we covered a news story about dogs being used to sniff out ovarian cancers. A team of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania had been training retrievers and German shepherds to identify a particular tumor plasma using a technique known as imprinting. The success of this endeavor means that experts could develop a device (essentially some form of mechanical nose) that could identify various forms of cancer and other diseases.
To do this correctly, specialists first have to fully understand what dogs are actually picking up on to detect cancer at such an early stage. This of course requires an extensive level of research which has highlighted one particular challenge– contemporary machines can’t even hold a candle to a dog’s smelling abilities. It’s why each plane that takes off from the airport has been cleared by a trained explosives detection dog.
(The U.S. Government spent billions developing machines that can identify concealed explosives, but dogs are still significantly more accurate.)
What Gives Dogs the Advantage?
Dogs have the ability to “layer scent”, this is what allows them to pick out the scent of illegal narcotics when they are wrapped up and dunked in sealed barrels of oil. Machines are usually designed to be “specific” or “sensitive”, but our four legged friends can be specific and acutely sensitive. This means that a trained dog can not only tell identify if cancer is present, but they can also tell when its not. This is why advanced medical imaging tests can still return some false positives– leading to unnecessary invasive treatments.
(Don’t forget that dogs can also develop cancer– here’s some more information if you’re interested.)
Why Aren’t More Dogs Being Used Now?
As it stands, we don’t have any machine that can go toe for toe with dogs at detecting early stage cancer. Studies have shown that dogs are more than 90 percent accurate at sniffing out these diseases. So the question right now is are we effectively utilizing a proven diagnostic utility as well as we could?
It seems that the major push is to pinpoint the unique odor signature of diseases like ovarian cancer. This way the “e-nose” could be designed to specifically find that signature. However, we have to wonder why we haven’t heard more about cancer-sniffing dogs being utilized in hospitals. All the research suggests that this could save lives right now.
(Did you know that dogs have also proven extremely effective at raising cancer? Check out the story of Randolph Westphal.)
It’s certainly exciting to think of a new diagnostic machine that could identify early-stage cancers with such a high rate of accuracy. At the same time, it seems foolish to pass on a highly efficient, low cost and non-invasive detection method that is available now. We agree with foundations like dogsdetectcancer.org that the dogs should be given their chance right now.