Earlier this week, I was pretty harsh on the use of drug-sniffing dogs and how they can be influenced by the prejudices of their human handlers. That skepticism in no way makes me any less amazed at the ways dogs can be trained to help out human beings with their senses. Every year, the possibilities expand.
A news story that just came out of England provides an excellent example: Britain’s National Health Service is now looking into how dogs can be used to detect prostate cancer by sniffing urine.
This isn’t an entirely new development. A study in Italy last year first brought up the possibility when two trained dogs turned out to have a 98 percent accuracy rate in telling the difference between urine samples from men with prostate cancer and men without.
The size of the study was pretty impressive — they ran tests on 677 urine samples — but at the same time, it was only two dogs. The fact that the NHS is taking this to the next level and starting trials that could turn it into a practical form of testing is very hopeful. Right now, the method of testing involves looking for specific proteins in blood samples. The problem is that the test has a high rate of false positives and initial diagnosis has to be confirmed via a biopsy, which is painful, invasive, and expensive. Being able to use a canine-based sniff test would avoid a lot of unnecessary time and effort.
It may come as no surprise, however, that the ideal for doctors is to eventually forego dogs and be able to come up with an electronic nose. Rowena Fletcher, of Milton Keynes Univerity, told Reuters, “Ultimately we hope to use the information that the dogs produce to actually develop an electronic nose. So eventually you could have a machine that sits on your consultant’s desk, you’d put the urine sample in it, and it would tell you if it was positive or negative. That would be the ultimate aim.”
However, that’s a long way off. According to Dr. Claire Guest, co-founder of the charity Medical Detection Dogs, modern tech still lags far behind the abilities of a real dog nose. “The problem the electronic nose scientist has is that currently their sensitivity is well below the dog. A dog can find parts per trillion; we had an electronic nose working alongside the dogs recently and they were unable to find anything below parts per million.”
Check out this video report for more info, and let’s all hope that these tests prove fruitful.
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