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NHS trials for cancer sniffer dogs

Initial studies show specially trained dogs can detect prostate cancer

Mark Gould

Monday, 10 August 2015

The NHS has given the go-ahead for trials involving specially trained dogs capable of sniffing out prostate cancer. The charity Medical Detection Dogs has gained approval from Milton Keynes University Hospital for further trials, after an initial study showed specially trained dogs can detect prostate tumours in urine in 93% of cases.

It is hoped canine testing could help show up inaccuracies in the traditional Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) test, used to determine if men need a biopsy. The test has a high “false positive” rate, and many men are unnecessarily referred for the invasive procedure. Iqbal Anjum, a consultant urologist at the hospital, said the study was “an extremely exciting prospect”.

He added: “Over the years there have been many anecdotal reports suggesting that dogs may be able to detect cancer based on the tumour’s odour. It is assumed that volatile molecules associated with the tumour would be released into the person’s urine, making samples easy to collect and test.”

The idea for using dogs to sniff out cancer came to Dr Claire Guest who says her own dog Daisy made her aware she was suffering from breast cancer. The normally gentle dog refused to get in the car, and began prodding Dr Guest in the chest. When she felt the patch, Dr Guest realised it was bruised. Tests revealed she had a benign tumour near the surface, and a deeper malign growth, which could have been severe if not for the early diagnosis.

Dr Guest said the incident gave her the “impetus to really believe this could be life-changing for people”. She founded Medical Detection Dogs in 2008.

The only academic analysis of cancer sniffer dogs focused on one dog's ability to detect prostate cancer. Now Medical Detection Dogs is working with Milton Keynes Hospital and scientists and doctors including world renowned cancer specialist Professor Karol Sikora, on ways of detecting prostate cancer from human breath and urine.

The charity says there are compelling reasons to improve prostate cancer diagnosis as it is a major killer and the PSA test is so unreliable that many GPs are reluctant to use it. If dogs can sniff prostate cancer from a urine sample the chances are high that from the results of the dogs’ sniffing research, a test can be developed that is far superior to the PSA test. The results would indicate the existence of a potential odour signature of prostate cancer that may correspond to one or, more likely, multiple volatile compounds. These molecules should then be assessed by specific gas chromatography/mass spectrometry analysis.

Dr Guest added: “Britain has one of the worst rates of early cancer detection in Europe. The NHS needs to be bolder about introducing new innovative methods to detect cancer in its early stages.

“Our dogs have higher rates of reliability than most of the existing tests. We know their sense of smell is extraordinary. They can detect parts per trillion - that’s the equivalent of one drop of blood in two Olympic-sized swimming pools. We should not be turning our backs on these highly sensitive bio-detectors just because they have furry coats.”

Two charities, the Graham Fulford Charitable Trust and the Prostate Cancer Support Group, have said they are interested in rolling out the diagnostic service once the trial is complete.

Gary Steele, who founded the Prostate Cancer Support Group, said his team were “so impressed” by the initial trials into using dogs to detect cancer, saying the PSA test left “a great deal of room for improvement”.

He added: “If they can prove in this study that dogs are reliable at detecting cancer, then we will have the evidence we need to offer sample screening by dogs as an optional test in our cancer clinic.”

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