Researchers Use Dogs’ Noses to Sniff Out Ovarian Cancer Pt. 1

Other than being man’s best friend, canines have been used for a variety of services ranging from guiding the blind to consoling sick patients in hospitals. However, dog noses are for more than just finding and chasing rabbits around the yard.

The New York Times reported that McBaine, a black and white springer spaniel from Philadelphia, is a new employee at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. His job is to stroll around a table-size wheel with 12 arms protruding from its edges, each holding different blood plasma samples. However, one of them contains a drop of cancerous tissue. After making his choice – box No. 11 – McBaine is given a tennis ball as a reward, which he chases during his victory lap.

The spaniel is one of four dogs at the center who are highly trained in cancer detection. The facility helps purebreds put their senses of smell to good use in search of early signs of ovarian cancer. As part of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, the Penn Vet collaborates with chemists and physicists to isolate cancerous cells that only dogs’ noses can detect. The goal isn’t to train dogs capable of super smell, but rather to eventually manufacture nanotechnology sensors that can detect cancer that’s 1/100,000th the thickness of paper.

RELATED STORY: Dogs Can Detect Prostate Cancer 4x Better Than Modern Tests

The Working Dog Center trains canines for police work, search and rescue, and bomb detection. Ovarian cancer detection was added to their doggy courses after receiving a grant from the Kaleidoscope of Hope Foundation. Many of the participating pooches are hunting hounds with noses that have been improved through years of selective breeding, such as Labrador retrievers and German shepherds. The dogs start with basic obedience classes when they’re 8 weeks old and are raised in the homes of volunteer foster families.

The cancer detection training entails handlers holding two vials of fluid in front of each dog – one cancerous and one benign. Dogs smell both, but are only rewarded when they sniff the malignant sample. George Preti, Ph.D., a chemist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, is working to isolate chemical biomarkers that produce ovarian cancer’s subtle smell. This is how the handlers are able to train the canines to correctly sniff out the vial with the cancerous sample. Using the research, the next step will be to design a handheld sensor that can detect the specific chemicals that dogs are able to identify with their noses.

The experiments being conducted at the Working Dog Center highlight the uncanny sense of smell that dogs possess in comparison to humans. But do you know just how much stronger their noses are than ours?

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