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Medical experts train ‘cancer sniffer dogs’

Researchers hoping to develop a quick and easy diagnostic tool for ovarian cancer are hoping dogs’ keen sense of smell will help them.

An early detection device that combines old-fashioned sense of smell skills, chemical analysis and modern technology to help detect the disease earlier, which in turn could lead to better survival rates for the cancer, which is particularly deadly towards women worldwide as symptoms do not tend to present themselves until an advanced stage.

Using blood and tissue samples donated by various patients, the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Centre has started training three dogs to sniff out the signature scent of the compound which is unique to the presence of ovarian cancer. If the animals can isolate the chemical marker, scientists at the local Monell Chemical Senses Centre will work to create an electronic sensor to identify the same compound smell.

“Because if dogs can do it, then the question is, can our analytical instrumentation do it? We think we can,” said Monell organic chemist George Preti.

Ovarian cancer is currently the fifth most common cancer amongst females in the UK, with over 7,500 patients being diagnosed each year. When diagnosed in the disease’s early stages, women have a five-year survival rate of 90%. However, because of its generic symptoms that women tend to brush aside – weight gain, bloating or constipation – the disease is often caught later when more severe symptoms present themselves, with about 70 per cent of cases are identified after the cancer has spread. For those women, the five-year survival rate drops to less than 40 per cent.

The research team will now build on previous studies showing that early stage ovarian cancer alters odour-making glands in the body, creating different-scented compounds. Another similar study in Britain in 2004 showed that dogs could identify a patient with bladder cancer just by smelling their urine.

Cindy Otto, director of the Working Dog Centre said, “If we can figure out what those chemicals are, what that fingerprint of ovarian cancer is that’s in the blood – or maybe even eventually in the urine or something like that – then we can have that automated test that will be less expensive and very efficient at screening those samples.”

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