Why researchers are training dogs to help with cancer diagnosis

Dogs may be able to sniff out cancer in saliva, urine

A team from the University of California-Davis has been training several dogs to use their sense of smell to screen patients for potential melanoma, as well as bladder, lung, breast, and ovarian cancers.

According to a UC-Davis release, dogs are able to recognize various types of cancer by smelling patients' breath, saliva, or urine because they have a sense of smell about 10,000 to 100,000 times more intricate than a human. The concept of using dogs to help detect cancer is not new; the United Kingdom's National Health Service recently approved a clinical trial to see if dogs can sniff out prostate cancer.

Researchers say they don't know what exactly the dogs smell that indicates a cancerous presence. Hilary Brodie, a professor in the UC-Davis department of otolaryngology, says that "the next step will be to identify what these organic compounds are" that the canines are smelling "and then to develop the technologies to assist in enhancing our abilities."

Part of the training involves having dogs smell the serum of a patient with cancer and then the serum of a patient without cancer and then training the dog to only respond to the positive result. According to Dina Zaphiris, director of the In Situ Foundation, any breed of dog can be trained to distinguish between the smell of someone with cancer and an individual who does not have the disease—but German Shepherds, poodles, Labradors, and herding breeds tend to perform the best because they are hard workers. 

A team of animal behaviorists, veterinarians, and physicians are training a lab named Alfie and a German Shepherd named Charlie for UC-Davis.

"Our new canine colleagues represent a unique weapon in the battle against cancer," says UC-Davis professor Peter Belafsky. "And the dogs' incredible talent for scent detection could offer us humans a real jump on diagnosing cancer much earlier and thus save many more lives" (NPR, 8/16; Lindelof/Crane, Sacramento Bee, 8/17; UC-Davis release, 8/17; AP/San Francisco Chronicle, 8/17).

More on cancer screening

View our presentation, "Cancer Screening and Prevention" to explore tactics used by successful cancer screening programs.

For more trends and best practices in personalized medicine, check out our study, Journey to Personalized Medicine.

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