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Outside the Lab Oncology, Profession, Clinical care

A Man’s Best Friend

We pride ourselves in keeping our fingers on the pulse, reporting on some of the latest advances in scientific research and technology that could, one day, make a real difference to your role. Hopefully a positive one. And this month is no different. There’s one thing that each of these innovations share in common… they have a realistic chance of making it into the hands of the practicing pathologist.

So when I read a story recently about a dog that’s been trained to sniff out thyroid cancer in human urine samples (1), my interest was piqued. So too was my insatiable need to tweet about it (@pathologistmag). Sure, animals’ ability to detect disease isn’t a new concept. In fact the first serious suggestion was made back in April 1989 in a letter to The Lancet, which contained anecdotal evidence of a dog that kept sniffing a lesion on its owner that was later confirmed as an early malignant melanoma (2). Subsequent studies claimed to prove that dogs could detect bladder (3), lung (4), and bowel cancers (5), and the list goes on… In fact, an organization was set up 10 years ago in the US specifically to supply dogs that are scent-trained to detect changes in blood sugar in their diabetic owners. And giant rats have been detecting TB in labs across Tanzania and Mozambique since 2008.

While a canine’s hypersensitive sense of smell is well-known, and now so too is its ability to be trained to detect certain biological markers, my question is this: how might this four-legged diagnostic be used to detect cancer in the real world? I was particularly interested by this latest report because the research team at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences reported 88.2 percent accuracy in detecting thyroid cancer by their trained canines, which they say is comparable to that of a fine-needle aspiration biopsy. Impressive stuff, but what now? “We wanted to see, can the doctor utilize the dog to help diagnose cancer?” asked lead researcher Arny Ferrando. Amazingly, they believe the answer is “yes”! “We’ve all looked at it from a skeptical, scientific standpoint, but the data just keeps leading us to the fact that this has remarkable clinical potential,” said Ferrando.

Don’t get me wrong, I think these findings are remarkable. But can you feasibly imagine a dog in a doctor’s office on standby to perform a preliminary cancer diagnosis? I think it’s taking the term “a man’s best friend” a little too far…

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  1. University for Arkansas for Medical Sciences, “Researchers use scent-trained dogs to detect thyroid cancer,” 9 March 2015
  2. H Williams, A Pembroke, “Sniffer dogs in the melanoma clinic?” Lancet, 333, 734 (1989). PMID: 2564551.
  3. CM Willis et al., “Olfactory detection of human bladder cancer by dogs: proof of principle study,” BMJ, 329:712–715 (2004). PMID: 15388612.
  4. R Ehmann et al., “Detection of patients with lung cancer out of a risk group by breath sample presentation to sniffer dogs,” J Eur Respir, 38, 2787 (2011).
  5. H Sonoda, “Colorectal cancer screening with odour material by canine scent detection,” Gut, 60, 814–819 (2011). PMID: 21282130.
About the Author
Fedra Pavlou

After graduating with a pharmacology degree, I began my career in scientific publishing and communications. Now with more than 16 years of experience in this field, my career has seen me heading up editorial and writing teams at Datamonitor, Advanstar and KnowledgePoint360 group. My past experiences have taught me something very important – that you have to enjoy working with, and have respect for your colleagues. It’s this that drew me to Texere where I now work with old colleagues and new. Though we are a hugely diverse team, we share several things in common – a real desire to work hard to succeed, to be the best at what we do, never to settle for second best, and to have fun while we do it. I am now honored to serve as Editor of The Pathologist and Editorial Director of Texere Publishing.

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