Rob Harris is training dogs to smell cancer. For the next seven years, Lucy, a cross between a Labrador retriever and an Irish water spaniel, has learned to sniff out kidney, bladder, and prostate cancer. Over the years she has been able to correctly detect cancer more than 95% of the time. Lucy is now part of “Medical Detection Dogs”, one of the largest clinical trials of canine cancer detection. The British organization have eight dogs who sniff out 3,000 urine samples from National health Service patients to see whether they contain cancer or not.
Dog’s impressive noses have 300 million sensors, compared to a human’s nose that only has 5 million. In addition, dogs have a second nose behind their visible one called Jacobson’s organ, which is what allows trained dogs to detect cancer’s unique odors called volatile organic compounds.
Over the next 26 years studies from California, France, and Italy have concluded that dogs really can smell cancer. However, researchers in the current British study want to make sure the dogs are actually smelling cancer not something else, such as old age or other symptoms.
In the study, there will be eight evenly spaced urine samples on a carousel, one from a cancer patient and the rest from patients who don’t have cancer. The dogs will go around it sniffing each sample. At least one of the samples will be from someone the same age as the individual with cancer and one of someone who had the symptoms but did not have the disease.
Guest, whose group is running the study, said if studies like hers continue to show the power of dog’s noses, the animals might be used in conjunction with diagnostic tests. Scientist might also design a machine that can mimic a dog’s smelling abilities, an “electronic nose”.
Unfortunately more than 25 years have passed and the amazing smelling ability of dogs have not met with commercial success. According to Dr. Sheryl Gabram, this is because “it’s not always easy to envision how sniffing out cancer could be used commercially. It would need a lot of years of study and a lot of development,” she said. “Which is too bad, because I think it’s an area of research that’s still promising.”