Can Dogs Detect Early Stage Cancer?

Dogs show promise in sniffing out melanoma, bladder, lung, breast, and ovarian cancers.

Dogs show promise in sniffing out melanoma, bladder, lung, breast, and ovarian cancers.

Dogs may soon be joining physicians in the examination room as researchers at the University of California-Davis are currently testing whether or not they can sniff out cancer in patients with the deadly disease.

A university team of physicians, veterinarians, and animal behaviorists hope to harness the olfactory skills of dogs to train them to sniff out cancer in patients’ urine, breath, and saliva. This may help researchers to determine innate differences between cancerous and noncancerous cells.

According to sensory scientists, dogs detect odorant concentration levels at 1 to 2 parts per trillion. That’s nearly 100,000 times that of a human. If this skill can be concentrated on the detection of cancer in patients, then dogs may be able to tell when a patient has cancer in the very early stages, making the jobs of doctors easier.

“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, distinguished professor of urology and director of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. “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.”

Hilary Brodie, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Otolaryngology, is hopeful that this research may lead to more readily available methods of detection.

“Much like the hand-held devices used to detect alcohol, drugs and explosives have revolutionized our safety, having a new tool to detect early-stage cancer would have incredible benefits for patient care,” noted Brodie.

Researchers have already established the ability of dogs to detect melanoma as well as bladder, lung, breast, and ovarian cancers. Additionally, canines have been successfully trained to distinguish the breath samples of patients with lung and breast cancers from those of healthy volunteers.

Due to this pattern of success, UC Davis researchers are hopeful that their latest research endeavor will yield positive results presenting a safe, noninvasive method for detecting cancer before it is too late.

Current methods for detecting cancer frequently fail to detect the disease until its later stages, when patients have already passed the so-called “golden hour” when treatment is most effective and survival rates are at their highest.

“Identifying patients at earlier stages could be extremely helpful in the fight against cancer,” said Gregory Farwell, professor of otalryngology and director of the university’s Head and Neck Oncology and Microvascular Surgery program.

The dogs are currently being trained by director of the In Situ Foundation, Dina Zaphiris. Zaphiris has a successful background in training dogs to detect cancer. According to her, almost any dog can be trained to detect the disease.

The dogs’ human-cancer screening work will begin in early 2016 with a clinical trial to establish the safety and efficacy of the new diagnostic canine 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, professor of otolaryngology and a physician who often deals with cases involving 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.”

As the canines at UC Davis prepare for their cancer detecting debut in 2016, researchers remain hopeful that the new method will lead to breakthroughs for patients with cancer. Even if the method is not as successful as researchers at the university hope, many patients’ lives will be brightened by the presence of the furry physicians.