Published on February 23, 2021
Medical Detection Dogs Sniff Out Prostate Cancer
When I first met Jake, he was an 11-year-old Labrador Retriever sitting in a kennel at the animal shelter where his family had relinquished him. Neither of us knew it yet, but he was about to become my best buddy as well as an accomplished therapy dog at a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital. Jake is now 15 and on sabbatical due to the coronavirus pandemic, but over the past four years I’ve witnessed the powerful role dogs can play in human medicine.
While Jake’s skills lie in emotional and mental health, some dogs are trained to alert humans to impending medical crises like seizures or diabetic shock. Others can diagnose diseases like cancer and malaria before humans even know they have them. And still others assist with essential tasks like opening doors and turning off lights. Now, man’s best friend is also pioneering the future of prostate cancer diagnostics.
Research Study Puts Dogs to the Test
Medical Detection Dogs is a United Kingdom-based non-profit organization that trains dogs to detect the odor of human disease “with the aim of developing faster, more efficient and less invasive diagnostics that lead to better patient outcomes.”1 They are currently training dogs to detect cancer, Parkinson’s disease, malaria, bacterial infections and COVID-19, using urine, fecal, skin and breath samples. For their latest study, they trained Florin, a four-year-old Labrador Retriever, and Midas, a seven-year-old Vizsla, to identify the odor of prostate cancer in urine.
The study, funded by the Prostate Cancer Foundation and published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One, was the first-ever double-blind study of its kind. That means that neither the researchers nor the dog trainers knew which samples were positive, removing any possibility of influencing the outcome by pointing the dogs in the right direction. Florin and Midas identified the positive samples unaided and did so correctly 71% of the time when detecting the most lethal prostate cancers, those with a Gleason score of nine. The dogs were also 73% accurate when indicating which samples did not have the disease.2
“This is hugely exciting because one of the challenges of the PSA blood test, the test most widely used [to diagnose prostate cancer] at the moment, is that other conditions can cause an elevated PSA, but that does not necessarily mean you have cancer. The dogs in this study were able to differentiate between cancer and other prostatic diseases with good reliability,” Dr. Claire Guest, Medical Detection Dogs’ co-founder and chief scientific officer, said in a press release.
Dr. Guest was the lead study author and worked with a collaborative team that included researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Johns Hopkins University and other institutions. At the end of the study, Dr. Guest and Florin, who lives with Dr. Guest in the U.K., flew to the United States, where a team of MIT scientists studied Florin’s nose in preparation for their next endeavor: building a robotic nose to detect prostate cancer.
The Future of Prostate Cancer Screening
While Florin and Midas have proven their disease-detecting prowess, they would have to be paid overtime in treats (lots of treats!) if they made diagnosing prostate cancer a full-time job. Instead, MIT scientists are using what they’ve learned about dogs’ remarkable olfactory skills to develop a robotic nose. The hope is that this electronic device would lead to earlier prostate cancer detection using a non-invasive method with more accurate results than the PSA test. The ultimate goal is to develop a smartphone app that could diagnose the disease.3
“Imagine a day when smartphones can send an alert for potentially being at risk for highly aggressive prostate cancer, years before a doctor notices a rise in PSA levels. The incredible work of these dogs is critical as we advance this program to develop an improved method of early prostate cancer diagnosis,” MIT physicist and research scientist Dr. Andreas Mershin said in a press release.
He added: “Once we have built the machine nose for prostate cancer, it will be completely scalable to other diseases.”
Dogs Are Man’s Best Friend
Based on how many times Jake stops to smell the trees, grass, sidewalks and everything else he encounters on our walks, I’m not surprised to learn the extent to which his nose is processing the information it receives. While he is not trained to diagnose cancer (he uses his olfactory skills to sniff out treats instead), he hopes that the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines will soon allow him to return to his therapy job and the veterans he serves.
Like Jake, Florin and Midas are also beloved family members. Despite their fancy job titles, higher educations and international travel, the dogs trained by Medical Detection Dogs live in homes with staff and volunteers who love and care for them like members of the family. To learn more about the organization and the work they do, visit Medical Detection Dogs.
To Florin, Midas, Jake and all of the good dogs who make the world a better place for humans, I say, “Woof woof!” (That means “Thank you!” in dog language.)
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1Study proves dogs can detect most lethal prostate cancers and moves us one paw closer to E-Nose. Medical Detection Dogs.
2Guest C, Harris R, Sfanos KS, Shrestha E, Partin AW, Trock B, et al. (2021) Feasibility of integrating canine olfaction with chemical and microbial profiling of urine to detect lethal prostate cancer. PLOS ONE. 16(2): e0245530. 2021 Feb 17.
3Study Training Dogs to Detect Prostate Cancer Gets One Paw Closer to a ‘Robotic Nose’ to Diagnose the Disease, Including Most Lethal Form. Prostate Cancer Foundation. 2021 Feb 17.
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