In Japan, a handler can train a Labrador Retriever to detect cancer in human urine for $44,000 USD over the course of three years. More than 700 men and women in Tateyama, a small town on the East Asian island’s southern peninsula, have participated in canine cancer screenings so far. Demand has outpaced the supply of handlers and financial resources, as experts hope to make the noninvasive health checks widely available across the country.

Meanwhile, researchers in Finland are working with dogs to sniff out cancer in the urine of other dogs. At first glance, it almost seems too obvious to be a novel area of study. As we know, it’s instinctual behavior for dogs to sniff for traces of each other in their respective territories. But the training process for dogs to learn olfactory cancer detection is very long and involved.

These projects illustrate perfectly the twin goals to which animal research aspires: saving and improving the lives of both humans and the animals in their care.

If further developed and perfected through additional research with dogs, these promising new cancer detection methods will represent major victories for human healthcare and veterinary medicine.

Why?

Have you ever undergone a gastroscopy? As it stands today, the best way to diagnose stomach cancer is for a physician to place a mouth guard between the patient’s teeth and insert a device called an endoscope down the esophagus, through the stomach, eventually reaching—by flexing the instrument to make a “J” shape—the small intestine. After the procedure, patients often experience a sore throat, or other uncomfortable signs and symptoms including cramps and bloating.

In our four-legged friends, especially among smaller breeds, the endoscope can’t reach most parts of the small intestine. More invasive procedures are therefore generally required for veterinarians to observe and diagnose diseases beyond the upper duodenum.

The efficacy of canine cancer screening has been tested before, but mostly with human patients. Highlights include a study in Integrative Cancer Therapies in which five dogs were trained to detect early-and late-stage lung and breast cancers. They performed with startling accuracy. (Perhaps most startled was one patient in the “healthy” control group to whom the dogs repeatedly and insistently alerted the researchers. 18 months later, the patient confirmed the dogs’ suspicions when they were diagnosed with breast cancer.) A more recent study in Gut included a Labrador Retriever trained to identify colorectal cancer. The dog outperformed the colonoscopy.

Still, more research is needed before the current tools used by physicians to diagnose cancer are scrapped in favor of highly-trained dogs. This is especially true regarding the use of dogs to sniff out cancer in each other.

As explained by Professor Jouko Vepsäläinen, lead investigator on a study conducted at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF), some important details must first be settled—beginning with the urine/cancer mixture presented to the dogs: “It’s not one molecule, it’s kind of a molecule soup and we’re trying to figure out the right molecules as well as the right percentages of each in cancer samples.” It should come as no surprise that researchers have encountered challenges that did not persist in studies with human patients. For example, male dogs must be trained to overcome their instinctual response to smelling the urine of a female dog in heat. “Ultimately,” Vepsäläinen said, “our goal is to get this into a form that makes it a really easy way of diagnosing cancer in dogs, sort of like a pregnancy test.”

So, what’s the verdict? Will dogs one day be trained to perform fail-safe diagnoses on human patients and on each other by accurately and consistently sniffing out pathogens? Will canine cancer screenings transform the landscape of veterinary science, healthcare delivery, and medicine?

It’s a bit early to tell, but animal research holds the answers. If you’re not familiar with FBR’s new campaign, “Love Animals? Support Animal Research”, click below to download the free brochure on why people should support science and medicine for the benefit of human and animal health.

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