Dogs help sniff out ovarian cancer

After training dogs to detect explosives, drugs and missing people, their next assignment is sniffing out cancer. Researchers are trying to teach dogs to recognize the smell of ovarian cancer, an elusive disease, which is often not caught until an advanced stage.

Scientists have long known that like many other tumors, ovarian cancer too has a characteristic odor. Experts are hoping dogs’ keen sense of smell will help them to discover a chemical footprint that might lead to earlier diagnostic tests of the malignancy and lead to better survival rates.

Dr. Cynthia Otto, director of the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine stated, “The reason dogs are so much better than humans (in detecting cancer) is because dogs have an ability to do what I describe as smell in color.They look around the room with their nose the same way we look around the room with our eyes. And they can smell each individual component.”

Dogs being trained
Using blood and tissue samples donated by patients, the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center has started training canines to sniff out the signature compound that indicates the presence of ovarian cancer.

Otto observed that the two trained dogs McBaine, a springer spaniel and Ohlin, a Labrador retriever correctly sniffed out the cancer sample, earning a “good boy” pat for their performance from the trainer.

Scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center will now try to narrow down the cancer odors the dogs smelt via analytical instrumentation using gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy. The information garnered will be utilized to create an electronic sensor or artificial ‘nano-nose’ to screen healthy women’s blood for the odor of nascent ovarian cancer.

Dr. George Preti, a chemist at the Monell Center explained, “This is the size of a tumor when it is generally diagnosed,” (referring to the orange). “It is hidden inside the female. This is the size when it should be diagnosed; this is an aspirin, and it should be diagnosed when it is about this size. So this is what we are striving for – to go from here where most of the ovarian cancers are diagnosed today to here (the aspirin) or even less than this.”