Dogs’ finely tuned sense of smell is roughly 10,000 times more accurate than a human’s. As such, three beagles taking part in a recent laboratory experiment were able to pick out the blood samples of cancer patients by scent alone with an extraordinary level of accuracy.
If the dogs didn’t detect anything, says People, they would move on to the next sample; if they sniffed out cancer, they would sit down, alerting the research team.
The experiment was conducted by researchers at the Florida-based pharmaceutical lab BioScentDx and published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. Lead researcher Heather Junqueira believes the team’s findings could herald canine detection as an affordable, non-invasive approach to early cancer screening in the future.
Junqueira presented her findings at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting in Orlando, Florida, on April 8, 2019.
“Previous studies leveraging canines in the cancer detection space have yielded accuracy rates of up to 99 percent,” she explained to the New York Post. “We’ve seen these dogs detect pre-cancerous cells, meaning those at stages 0 to 1.”
Junqueira and her research team, from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, taught four beagles to differentiate between healthy blood samples and samples from patients with malignant lung cancer. Three of the dogs, all 2 years of age, were able to identify the cancerous samples 96.7 percent of the time.
According to the study write-up, however, a beagle named Snuggles was “unmotivated to perform.”
In the wake of their success, the researchers are moving toward training the dogs to detect lung, breast, and colon cancers, but this time the bar has been raised; the dogs will encounter breath samples instead of blood.
The eventual goal is to identify the specific biomarkers that alert the dogs to cancerous cells and develop a test, much like a pregnancy test, to be used as an early-cancer-detection tool.
According to the New York Post, prototype tests cost just $50 and are intended to supplement more traditional cancer screening methods. “It’s important to note that these screenings aren’t meant to replace a preventative visit to the doctor,” Junqueira clarified, “or diagnostic tests such as yearly mammograms.”
Canines have long impressed us with their constant observation and intuitive responses to behavior cues. It’s no accident that they know when we’re about to take them for a walk, says the BBC. In 2008, a red Collie crossbreed named Max even detected early cancer in his owner, Maureen Burns.
The 9-and-a-half-year-old pup’s oddly morose behavior and occasional nudges to Maureen’s chest alerted her to the possibility of breast cancer. It took a surgical biopsy to confirm Max’s suspicions, and after the lump was removed, Max’s behavior returned to normal. “I owe him so much,” Maureen said.
“Right now it appears dogs have a better natural ability to screen for cancer than our most advanced technology,” said Dr. Thomas Quinn, professor at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“Although there is currently no cure for cancer,” Junqueira added, as quoted by USA Today, “early detection offers the best hope of survival. A highly sensitive test for detecting cancer could potentially save thousands of lives,” she continued, “and change the way the disease is treated.”