Maureen Burns, who lives in Rugby, UK, believes she would not be here today if it weren’t for her 10-year-old dog.
Max, a Red Collie cross, kept sniffing Maureen’s breath and nudging her right breast, prompting her to check her breasts. She discovered a small lump in the right one that had not shown up on her mammogram. The results of a biopsy confirmed that it was malignant. Maureen had two operations to remove the malignant lump, as well as radiotherapy. Her prognosis is excellent.
Anecdotal evidence similar to Maureen and Max’s experience has led to research efforts in the UK and USA to learn how this remarkable canine ability can help diagnose different types of human cancer quickly and simply.
Cancer cells release small amounts of volatile substances, also called biochemical markers, that are not produced by normal cells. In the UK, Cancer and Bio-detection Dogs is dedicated to training dogs to detect the odor of human diseases and, ultimately, to develop laboratory equipment capable of the precision of the canine olfactory system. In 2004, research results published in the British Medical Journal found that dogs can be trained to reliably identify the odor of bladder cancer within urine samples.
Research in the United States, published in Integrative Cancer Therapies in 2006, produced similar positive results for detection of lung and breast cancer using breath samples. It was also discovered that ordinary dogs with only basic puppy training were able to be efficiently trained using clicker training, a common reward-based method of teaching in which the dog is given food treats for displaying the desired behavior.
Within two to three weeks, the dogs were able to identify biopsy-confirmed lung and breast cancer with near-perfect accuracy, comparing favorably with chest x-rays, CT scans and mammographies. Since chest x-rays and sputum cytology have a high false-negative rate, and since mammographies sometimes fail to detect cancers within dense breast tissue, diagnosis through non-invasive biomarker methods holds promise for earlier cancer detection and the associated lower mortality rate.
The Pine Street Foundation, located north of San Francisco, is currently expanding its earlier research to study detection of ovarian cancer. In partnership with the University of Maine, breath analysis will be conducted both with trained dogs at the Pine Street Foundation as well as with, for the first time, sophisticated analytical chemistry processes.
The foundation is recruiting research volunteers. In particular, they are seeking women with newly diagnosed or recurrent biopsy-confirmed ovarian cancer, fallopian tube cancer or primary peritoneal cancer to breathe through a special tube prior to beginning treatment. They also need women with endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome as well as healthy women to give breath samples. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and can participate, download a recruitment package or call the foundation at 415-342-0886.
Other than serving as a research volunteer, the Pine Street Foundation suggests these ways of helping:
Make a donation. Ninety-two percent of the foundation’s funding comes from donations from individuals or other foundations.
Replicate the foundation’s study. Learn more about the current study and build and improve upon it through new research.
Get the word out. The more people who know about this work, the better. Please share this information with your friends and colleagues.