Three beagles were trained to identify the cancer

By Julie Mazziotta
June 18, 2019 04:01 PM
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The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association

Dogs are already the perfect cuddle buddy, fetch partner and best friend, but a few good pups can add another line to their resume — cancer detectors.

In a new study released Monday in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, researchers announced that they were successfully able to train three beagles to detect lung cancer by scent. They hope that this is the start of further development of a new technology, modeled after the dogs, that could screen for cancer by smell.

The researchers, from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, decided to train beagles, who are known “for their superior olfactory receptor genes,” for eight weeks to identify the differences between blood samples from healthy adults and others from patients with non-small cell lung cancer. If the dogs didn’t detect anything, they would move on, but if they sniffed out cancer, they would sit down.

After training, the dogs were 97 percent accurate in detecting lung cancer.

“We’re using the dogs to sort through the layers of scent until we identify the tell-tale biomarkers,” Dr. Thomas Quinn, professor at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and lead author on the study, said in a press release. “There is still a great deal of work ahead, but we’re making good progress.”

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Based on the success of this study, the researchers have started another iteration to train the dogs to detect lung, breast and colon cancer with breath samples instead of blood. The goal is to eventually figure out what biomarkers alert the dogs that there is cancer in the breath or blood samples, and to use that to create a technology like a pregnancy test that could easily detect cancer.

“Right now it appears dogs have a better natural ability to screen for cancer than our most advanced technology,” Quinn said. “Once we figure out what they know and how, we may be able to catch up.”

The researchers also hope to use this technology to identify early-stage cancer.

“Early detection of cancer is one of the best ways to improve patient outcomes, and current methods of early detection rely on expensive imaging equipment, which can be an insurmountable obstacle for underserved and rural communities,” they wrote in the study. “Further investigation into the biochemical molecules detected by dogs could provide a foundation for the development of a highly sensitive, specific, and cost-effective method for early cancer detection.”