Can Dogs Smell Cancer in Humans? Medical research says yes

dog wearing medical detection dog vest sniffing a sample in laboratory

Canine cancer detection is an approach to early detection cancer screening that relies dog’s incredible olfactory(smell) receptors and research is continuing to prove their ability to detect certain types of cancer in humans.

A dog sitting with its nose near a stethoscope

Research suggests that dogs can detect many types of cancers in humans.

Like many other diseases, cancers leave specific traces, or odor signatures, in a person’s body and bodily secretions. Cancer cells, or healthy cells affected by cancer, produce and release these odor signatures. They detectTrusted Source these odors in substances called volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Types of cancers currently detected

From Canine to computer

The detection of a cancer signal by electronic noses isn’t a new concept, but those that have been developed so far still can’t match the accuracy of dog’s, says Andreas Mershin a research scientist at MIT. To get closer to that ability, Mershin and his interdisciplinary team establish a proof-of-concept method for the integration of canine olfaction with machine odor analysis of prostate cancer in a study published February 17 in PLOS ONE.

a brown dog wearing a bio-detection dog vest sniffing a medical sample on steel apparatus
Medical detection dog at MIT

In another study, researchers collected volatile compounds that make up each of the urine specimens’ aroma and analyzed these chemicals using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS). They found that the amounts of several volatile compounds were elevated or reduced in the cancer samples, but the distinguishing chemicals were different from those identified by other studies. Mershin says that this apparent lack of consistent biomarkers for prostate cancer highlights the problem of disease diagnoses based on particular compounds or sets of compounds. Rather than basing their decisions on specific chemicals, dogs identify something that’s “cancery” about a sample, he says.

As a first step toward developing electronic noses with similar capability, the team used the dogs’ diagnoses to train a type of artificial intelligence called an artificial neural network (ANN) to evaluate the volatile chemicals detected from the urine by GC-MS. The ANN detected cancer samples with high accuracy, says Stephen Thaler, the president and CEO of Imagination Engines and a coauthor of the study. But due to the small sample size, the researchers say their results need to be validated with a larger experiment.

Mershin says the team’s eventual goal is to apply its canine-trained machine algorithm to an electronic nose that contains synthetic analogs of animal olfactory receptors that they have patented. But before this tool is ready for smartphones, they need to use many more samples to boost the dogs’ cancer-detecting accuracy and then train the ANN to match this performance.

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