Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Working Dog Center have started training three dogs to use their extraordinary sense of smell to sniff out the signature compound that indicates the presence of ovarian cancer.
The researchers theorize that if the dogs can isolate the chemical marker for the disease, they will then be able to direct scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center on what to look for when developing an electronic sensor to find the same marker in women.
"Because if the dogs can do it, then the question is, can our analytical instrumentation do it? We think we can," George Preti, a Monell organic chemist told the Courier-Journal.
More than 20,000 American women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year. The survival rate is relatively low, compared to other cancers, because women often attribute the early warning signs of weight gain, bloating, and constipation as related to other issues. Statistics show that 70 percent of the diagnosed cases are caught in the later stages, giving women less than a 40 percent chance of survival for five years. If it is caught early, the five year survival rate rises to 90 percent.
Involved in this study are McBaine, a Springer spaniel; Ohlin, a Labrador retriever; and Tsunami, a German shepherd.
The researchers are building on previous studies that have suggested that dogs can sniff out the markers for other types of cancers. One study in England suggested that dogs could smell and detect which people were bladder cancer patients by smelling their urine.
Scientists have not yet found how to apply this to early diagnosis, however. "If we can figure out what those chemicals are, what that fingerprint of ovarian cancer is that's in the blood — or maybe even eventually in the urine or something like that — then we can have that automated test that will be less expensive and very efficient at screening those samples," says Cindy Otto, director of the Working Dog Center.
One of the people who have donated tissue to the study is Marta Drexler, a 57-year-old woman who, like many ovarian cancer patients, was not diagnosed early because she had no symptoms.
"To have the opportunity to help with this dreadful disease, to do something about it, even if it's just a tiny little bit of something, it's a big thing," says Drexler, who has had two surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy.
The Kaleidoscope of Hope Foundation is funding the study through an $80,000 grant.