Early detection of cancer — the second leading cause of death for people in the United States — gives patients the best chance of survival. Unfortunately, many of the screening methods available today detect cancer at later stages, when treatment is less effective.
Fortunately, in the very near future, dogs and their extraordinary senses of smell will help develop ways to detect cancer in its earliest stages.
Dogs have been trained to detect breast, lung, ovarian, prostate, thyroid and other cancers, all with amazing accuracy: 98 percent for both breast and prostate cancer, for example. Even untrained dogs have been able to sniff out their dog moms’ breast cancer and dog dad’s brain and skin cancers.
For the first time ever in the U.K., it was announced earlier this month that a clinical trial is using dogs to sniff out prostate cancer.
And for the first time ever in the U.S., it was announced at a news conference today that dogs trained in the ability to sniff out cancer will be using those skills by working with the medical staff at the University of California, Davis.
“For the past number of years, we have been developing very high-end, expensive new tests to try and detect the presence of cancer,” said Ralph de Vere White, director of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center, in a news release.
“Dogs have been doing this, detecting disease in the urine of people suspected of having bladder cancer, for example. This work marries sophisticated technology with low-tech, yet sophisticated, dogs’ noses to see if they can help us identify the molecules that differentiate cancer from non-cancer.”
In a year-long training program, two 4-month-old puppies — Alfie, a Labradoodle, and Charlie, a German Shepherd — are working with doctors, veterinarians and animal behavior specialists to develop their abilities to identify the scent of human cancer in saliva, breath and urine samples.
Dina Zaphiris, director of the InSitu Foundation, a nonprofit that trains dogs to detect cancer, is training Alfie and Charlie. She has already trained more than two dozen dogs to detect the disease. Almost any dog can be trained to detect cancer, she said, but she prefers to work with German Shepherds, Labradors, Poodles and herding breeds, “because of their work ethic.”
Alfie and Charlie’s cancer screening work will start early next year with a clinical trial to establish the effectiveness of this new approach.
“Despite all the advances of modern medicine, we still can’t reliably detect many types of cancers in their early stages,” said Peter Belafsky, a professor of otolaryngology who frequently deals with cases of advanced cancer.
“Our new canine colleagues represent a unique weapon in the battle against cancer. It’s the first of its kind at UC Davis, 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.”
Photo: UC Davis Health System