In the future, dogs might be able to help detect cancer

There are SO many reasons to love dogs as is, but lately, science has been giving us quite a few more. A couple days ago, a new study suggested that dogs will snub people who are rude to their owners — and now, it turns out that your dog may be able to save your life.

Britain’s National Health Service recently approved new clinical trials in the United Kingdom to see if dogs can sniff out prostate cancer. The trials will be conducted at Milton Keynes University Hospital in Buckinghamshire, and will use animals from Medical Detection Dogs, a nonprofit organization co-founded in 2008 by behavioral psychologist Claire Guest.

“What we’ve now discovered is that lots of diseases and conditions — and cancer included — that they actually have different volatile organic compounds, these smelly compounds, that are associated with them,” Guest told NPR. “And dogs can smell them.”

Specifically, the study hopes to discover if dogs are able to detect prostate-specific antigens, or PSAs. Currently, PSAs are found via blood test. If the trials are successful, scientists will have found a way to test that doesn’t cost much money and is noninvasive.

“It’s a low false-negative but a very high false-positive, meaning that 3 out of 4 men that have a raised PSA haven’t got cancer,” Guest told NPR. “So the physician has a very difficult decision to make: Which of the four men does he biopsy? What we want to do is provide an additional test — not a test that stands alone but an additional test that runs alongside the current testing, which a physician can use as part of that patient’s picture.”

In the trials, scientists will bring small samples of urine on a carousel to the dogs at their training facility. The scientists will know if each sample came from a healthy patient or if the sample came from a patient with disease. The dogs will walk around the carousels and sniff the samples; if they smell cancer in a sample, they will stop, wait, and stare at the sample until the scientists attend it.

“Dogs, as we know, have got this fantastic sense of smell,” Guest told NPR. “They’ve got 300 million sense receptors in their nose — us humans have a sort of poor 5 million. So they are fantastic at smelling odors at very, very low levels.”

The team has a dog that is already extra adept at finding cancer. According to Guest, she’s their “most reliable” prostate cancer dog — something Guest knows from personal experience.

“She was working on a project with me, but she started for a short time to be a little bit anxious around me, and one day kept jumping and staring at me and nudging into my chest,” Guest told NPR. “I found a lump which I hadn’t been aware of. I sought medical advice. Actually, that particular lump was fine, but I had very, very deep-seated breast cancer. I had surgery and treatment, and I’m glad to say I’m fully recovered.”

At the time, Guest had a “huge amount of skepticism” about the ability of dogs to detect cancer. She told NPR, “[My diagnosis] kept me focused on the fact that I knew that dogs could offer something, if we can diagnose for cancer by screening non-invasively, screening for volatiles. And of course, this could save thousands of lives in the future.”

Of course, they’re still in the early stages of testing, but we’re hopeful. Imagine if one day you were able to have your dog trained to detect cancer. Of course, that’s a massive dream, but one that could save your life — or a life of one of your friends or family members — at a time you’d least expect it.

(Image via Shutterstock.)

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