Love puppies and hate cancer? Then you're in luck, as you may soon be able to turn to Doggie Howlser, M.D., as one way to detect cancer early on, when it's most treatable. The Penn Vet Working Dog Center is pioneering a training approach that teaches dogs to literally sniff out cancer.
According to Cindy Otto, M.D., founder and executive director of the center, cancer plasma has a distinct chemical odor that's undetectable to humans but can be picked up by super-sensitive canine sniffers. In fact, for years anecdotal reports have abounded of people's pooches catching their cancer before their doctors did, and now the research has finally started to back up what pet owners have suspected all along. The center, part of the University of Pennsylvania's school of veterinary medicine, recently received a grant to train dogs specifically to look for ovarian cancer, as it is traditionally very difficult to catch in the early stages.
“Ovarian cancer is a silent killer,” Otto said in an interview with the New York Times. “But if we can help detect it early, that would save lives like nothing else.” Working with chemists and physicists, Otto and others are trying to refine the technique to allow for more precise detection. Currently dogs have shown an ability to tell the difference between cancerous and non-cancerous tissues in lab samples and to smell prostate cancer in urine, but it's unknown if they will be able to tell the difference between types of cancers or sniff them out in a person's body.
Even if they never end up in clinics (wearing little white coats? Please?), the scientists still think the dogs can teach us how to isolate the "unique chemical biomarkers" that identify each cancer. Once the signature smell is identified, electronic nose hand-held sensors could be designed to look for it. Charlie Johnson, Ph.D., a professor of experimental nanophysics at Penn, told the Times the dog data has been so helpful that he expects to have a prototype available within five years.
While Otto doesn't see dogs as replacing current medical practices yet, she does see them as an important tool in the fight against ovarian cancer, augmenting the "chemical and nanosensing techniques" for cancer detection. And this is one medical technology we hope comes to fruition soon. After all, a snuggle with a fur baby sure sounds a lot more appealing to us than a pap smear!