July 18, 2012

It Smells Like Prostate Cancer in Here

What if dogs could detect cancer in humans by smelling their urine? It sounds ridiculous; but recently, shepherds have been trained to do just that. Researchers tested the ability of dogs to distinguish the scent of prostate cancer in the urine of people who have the disease. How can this be possible? A number of cancer biomarkers have been identified during the course of cancer research. One such biomarker, volatiles organic compounds, was discovered and written about by the researchers performing the study.

In the study, researchers trained a Belgian Malinois shepherd to identify the volatiles organic compounds. They used conditioning with a clicker to encourage the dogs. The urine samples were prepared in the same manner to avoid corrupting the experiment. They were frozen and subsequently heated to an identical temperature.

The dogs were not immediately able to detect the compound. They required two years of training beforehand. Once the training was complete, the study began. The researchers gathered 66 patients. Thirty-three of the patients had prostate cancer; the other 33 represented the control group. The trained shepherds were given the urine samples of all 66 patients. They were able to detect 30 out of 33 of the patients with cancer by sniffing their urine samples.

How can dogs possibly diagnose cancer at such an astounding rate? It isn’t magic; dogs have very sensitive sense of smell. The volatiles organic compounds have a distinct odor. If humans were able to smell as well as other creatures, we would be able to detect it as well. The future of using dogs to detect prostate cancer is unknown for now, but it’s clear that with proper identification of specific compounds and lengthy training, it’s possible.