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September 8, 2014

Can dogs smell cancer?

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Researchers are studying how dogs’ sense of smell might help scientists develop a tool to detect cancer in humans.

Cancer researchers have explored the possibility that dogs can detect the “smell” of cancer for 25 years, trying to put science behind patient stories that their dog played a role in their cancer detection.

Diane Papazian noticed her dog nuzzling next to her body where doctors later found a lump, and credits the dog with bringing attention to the area.

“I always say that had it not been for Troy, I don’t know if I would be here today,” she said.

It is possible that cancerous cells emit a “smell” that dogs can detect, according to Dr. Cindy Otto, who founded the Penn Vet Working Dog Center. A team at the center is testing the idea by asking dogs to identify the difference in smell between cancerous and non-cancerous blood samples.

The dogs are correct 90 percent of the time, Otto said.

A group of Italian scientists presented research with similar success this May, saying that their dogs detected cancer with 98 percent accuracy.

But Gary Schwartz, head of oncology and hematology at the Columbia University Medical Center, urges caution.

“I think we always have to question until we see all the data, and all the information, we shouldn’t make any definitive conclusions about any finding,” Schwartz said.

Dogs will probably never be the sole device for hospitals to determine if a patient has cancer, but learning about cancerous odors can help research, Otto said.

“The dogs themselves probably aren’t going to do the final job. They’re helping us design the tool that will then become the screening tool,” she said.

Dr. Charlie Johnson, a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania, is using nanotechnology to develop an “electronic nose” that can detect cancer. The dog studies can provide insight about how to make this tool more accurate, Johnson said.


Warm up questions
  1. What is a hypothesis? What is a scientific experiment?
  2. What is cancer? How would someone know that they have cancer?
  3. What are the five senses? Which do scientists rely on the most?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why do some scientists believe that dogs can smell cancer? What is their proof?
  2. How would you set up an experiment to test if dogs can smell cancer? Is it necessary for the dog to be right 100 percent of the time?
  3. How might studying how trained dogs can smell cancer help scientists develop future techniques to screen for it?
  4. Where do you and your family find medical information?  How do you know what sources to trust?
  5. How has the internet changed the way people think about their own health choices?
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