Oncologists and Dogs: Partners?

Cancer is a condition where cells in a body part grow and reproduce uncontrollably. The cancerous cells can invade and destroy neighbouring healthy tissue, including organs, leading ultimately to death in many cases. There are over 200 different types of cancer, each with its own methods of detection, diagnosis and treatment. Moreover, screening and detection methods are not always accurate. But with the help of  ‘man’s best friend’, a new screening technique could be in the cards.

The first suggestion of this approach dates back to 1989 but there were only a few publications on this subject in the next decade. However, two other studies (in 2004 and 2006) had promising results. The 2006 report claimed 99% accuracy in detecting lung cancer. However both studies were preliminary and involved small numbers of patients.

Two recent studies conducted in Istituto Clinico Humanitas in Rozzano, Italy and University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine showed that specifically trained dogs can detect prostate cancer from urine samples with 98% accuracy and ovarian cancer in tissue and blood samples with 90% accuracy respectively. Both the studies were performed with large no of patients.

A 2011 study, by researchers at UK charity Medical Detection Dogs, found that trained dogs detect cancer through sniffing out volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are the chemicals emitted by a tumour. VOCs have been found in the breath of lung and colon cancer patients, as well as in the urine of prostate cancer patients. VOCs could also be bio-markers of cancer, thus opening a new window for early detection of cancer and thereby increasing a five-year survival rate of over 90%. Moreover this method is reproducible, low cost and non-invasive for both patients and dogs.

Now dog trainers and oncologists are working hand in hand at Duke University to train dogs to detect breast cancer with the goal to produce a new screening system or electronic sensor to detect ovarian cancer’s odour signature. Other researchers at Penn are trying to develop a mechanical, hand-held sensor termed as ‘Cyborg sensors’ that can detect cancer chemical in the samples. These sensors consist of biological and mechanical components – a combination of carbon nanotubes and single-stranded DNA that preferentially bond with one specific chemical compound. These sensors, more precisely the “electronic nose” in theory, could be programmed to bind and detect the volatile chemicals.

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Arunima Maiti

Arunima Maiti

Biomedical scientist with special interest in reproductive biology.

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