Anyone who has ever walked a dog has noticed their extraordinary sniffer. They sniff … everything, even each others’ rear ends to detect health concerns. Well, in New Zealand, humankind’s best buddies are training to detect cancer with their noses. Specifically: lung cancer.
Dr. Tim Edwards, a researcher at The University of Waikato, has begun training pet dogs to do initial screenings for lung cancer. Here’s a new video about his work:
A Dog’s Snuffle: Better Than a CT Scan
Why lung cancer? Because it’s one of the most invasive and expensive cancers to screen. In order to look at the lungs, doctors have to use low-dose computed tomography, or LDCT. The current recommendation for heavy smokers is to get this CT scan yearly from age 55-81. That adds up to a lot of radiation exposure, which is a risk for OTHER cancers to develop, later! And since most insurance companies balk at paying for all those tests, they are often not done — leading to later detection and worse outcomes for cancer patients.
If we can find a less invasive, less expensive test, we’ll be well on our way to early detection in more lung cancer patients. And dogs are extraordinarily accurate at detecting cancer.
Dogs Make Detection Look Like Child’s Play
So who is Dr. Edwards training for this task? Any dog who’s willing to work. Since all dogs have a sense of smell roughly 100,000 times more sensitive than ours, any dog willing to be trained will be able to detect cancer with their nose.
What are they smelling? No one knows 🙂 We know that cancer cells give off different metabolites in their wastes than healthy cells do — but what chemicals dogs actually detect in the breath or saliva sample is currently unknown. We just know they’re really good at distinguishing non-cancer samples from cancer samples.
One More Reason to Be Grateful for Dogs
And maybe that’s all we really need to know: dogs are good at detecting cancer with their nose, and they don’t mind doing it.
Other than super-curious researchers, I’m not sure anyone really cares what the chemicals they detect. As long as they accurate identify cancer at early stages, I’m cool.
Bonus: we avoid repeated radiation and expensive tests.
Double Bonus: we can pay them in treats.
How does it get better than this??
Cancer is complex and sneaky and foul. Dogs are the opposite. Maybe dogs, with their simple devotion, will help us to beat cancer through early detection.
I’m not sure we always deserve their love, but I know they always deserve ours.
Molly Jacobson, Editor, The Dog Cancer Survival Guide