Dog noses are amazing. Using only scent, dogs have been integral in many law enforcement operations. They can sniff out drugs, bombs and even cadavers. But their olfactory skills don’t stop there. Dogs can use their sense of smell to detect several diseases in humans, such as Parkinson’s, diabetes and even certain types of cancer.
One dog in particular, Daisy, was especially good at sniffing out cancer. Daisy alerted her owner, animal behaviorist Claire Guest, to a tumor hidden deep inside her chest wall, an insidious malignancy that normally isn’t detected until the cancer has spread throughout the body. Thanks to Daisy, they caught it in time. Guest soon began to think about ways that Daisy could help others.
Guest, who was at the time training hearing dogs for the deaf, co-founded the British charitable foundation Medical Detection Dogs with Dr. John Church in 2008. The foundation trains dogs to detect odors that can predict an impending medical crisis hours in advance, as well as the presence of cancers.
In a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2004, the team showed dogs had better than a 40% success rate in identifying bladder cancer, which was significantly better than other methods (14%). Subsequent research indicated dogs can detect odors down to parts per trillion, which is the equivalent of sniffing out a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic size swimming pools.
Into the lab
This study caught the attention of two scientists in America. Andreas Mershin, a physicist at MIT, and Wen-Yee Yee, a chemistry professor at The University of Texas at El Paso, were intrigued. But they realized the scalability of the operation was limited. It can cost $25,000 to train dogs. It would be hard to keep one in every oncology practice without additional funding. So they decided to see if they could create a device to mimic a dog’s sense of smell.
The Nano Nose
The artificial device named the Nano Nose, designed by Mershin, was initially used as a military tool to detect land mines and IEDs. More recently it’s being used as a cancer detection device that can be a helpful tool in doctors’ offices. The prototype — which is still being developed — can detect odors at parts per trillion, but it still can’t distinguish the smell of cancer in individual human patients the way a dog can.
But the work is progressing. At UT El Paso, Wen-Yee Lee and her research team have used the canine olfactory system as a model for a new screening test for prostate cancer. The test currently has a 92% accuracy rate in tests of urine samples. It could be eventually developed as a kit similar to the home pregnancy test.
If work progresses as predicted, the Nano Nose will become more than just a sensing device; it will be a true diagnostic tool. But until then we have to look to our furry companions for help — they truly are man’s best friend.