The canine sense of smell is extraordinary. Consider that a dog’s nose contains more than 220 million olfactory (smell) receptors compared to our measly five million! This keen canine sense of smell has been used to benefit us in all kinds of ways. Dogs have been hunting alongside humans for centuries. Scent trained dogs direct their handlers to specific smells (drugs, explosive devices, various types of cancer), alert diabetics when their blood sugar levels are abnormal, and warn epileptics when seizures are about to unfold.
A new scent training program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Working Dog Center is focused on teaching dogs to detect ovarian cancer in women. Funded by a grant from Kaleidoscope of Hope Foundation, the goal of the program is to train dogs to detect this disease at an early stage, before symptoms are apparent and before conventional screening tests are as effective. When diagnosed early, the survival time for women with ovarian cancer is markedly increased.
The research program
A Labrador named Ohlin Frank is only on his fourth training session, but he has been able to detect ovarian cancer tissue 100 percent of the time. He is one of three dogs- two Labradors and a Springer Spaniel who have been identified within the research program as having the greatest potential for this scent work. After eight weeks of training in obedience and agility, the dogs were introduced to the ovarian cancer smell. They were trained to sit at the moment of detection.
Thus far, ovarian tissues have been collected from 31 cancer patients and 30 healthy individuals to serve as a control group. The training team will imprint the dogs on tissue as well as blood (plasma) samples from the various patients. Dr. Cynthia Otto, the director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center explains, “If we can document that the dogs are good at picking up the odor in plasma after being exposed to the tissue, then we can try moving forward to see if the dogs could be imprinted solely on the plasma samples. As cancer cells’ entire metabolic machinery is shifted when they become malignant, their unique odor is evidently a signature the dogs are able to identify, with different cancer types having different signatures.”
While it is lovely to fantasize about “a Lab in every lab” (think how this would liven up the work atmosphere), there simply aren’t enough dogs to go around! Dr. Otto and her coworkers hope to take what they learn from the dogs and use this information to develop a laboratory test for early ovarian cancer screening. Collaborating with researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center and the University of Pennsylvania Department of Physics the researchers hope to characterize the components of the chemicals the dogs are scenting and then refine the analysis to enable machines in the laboratory to successfully detect them. The ultimate goal would be an accurate blood screening test for early detection of ovarian cancer, particularly in women with a family history of this disease.
Kudos to Dr. Otto and her team for pursuing this amazing research!
Have you done scent detection work with your dog? If so, please share your experience.
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at www.speakingforspot.com, Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.