Dogs can sniff out lung cancer with near-perfect accuracy, new research claims.
Scientists first suggested training dogs to sniff out cancer back in 1989, and in the last several years, many studies have explored the ability of dogs to find melanoma, lung, breast and bladder cancers.
One Alabama woman has taken it upon herself to train local and visiting dogs into medical assistants, of sorts.
Cindy Roberts, who has been training dogs professionally since 1982 shifted her focus to the animals’ hyper-sensitive noses when her own mother died, just six days following her lung cancer diagnosis.
Her vow to her mother was to help others catch cancer sooner, in the hopes their survival chances might be better.
And according to the new study from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine-Bradenton Campus, dogs like Cindy’s might do that less expensively an with equal or greater accuracy, than lab and machine testing can.
Cancer screening and diagnostics have come a long way, but they’re far from perfect.
Improving them is essential, as an early diagnosis is often the difference between life and death.
That’s particularly true for non-small cell lung cancer.
If the cancer is caught in its earliest stages, before the disease spreads, the five-year survival rate is 60 percent.
But it’s hard to detect, as many people have no symptoms and if a person does develop symptoms, they tend to be mild ones, such as a persistent cough.
Once the disease has reached its more advanced stages, metastisizing to neighboring regions of the body, five-year survival drops to one-third.
By the time signs of the cancer are far flung throughout the body, the chance of surviving for five years drops to six percent.
Imaging like CAT scans, CT scans, X-rays and PET scans are used to try to detect the disease before a biopsy is analyzed under a microscope to make the final diagnosis.
But these tests are not totally reliable, and can be extremely expensive, costing anywhere between $270 and $5,000.
Cindy knows just how unhelpful these tests can be.
By the time her mother’s lung cancer (it’s unclear if it was SCLC or another form) was diagnosed in 2014, it was too late for treatment to save her.
The six days between her mother’s diagnosis and her death were barely enough time for Cindy and other loved-ones to say their goodbyes.
Her mother had survived both melanoma and breast cancer, but late detection made lung cancer an un-winnable fight for her.
‘She said “I’ve had a good life, I’ve enjoyed these six days,” but I told her that if I can ever be in a position here I can help someone to have ore than six days, I will,’ Cindy says.
‘I wanted to do something – I guess I’m just stingy, I wanted more than six days.’
Cindy had been training dogs to obey their owners and more since the 1980s.
So when she learned in 2016 that the animals she had dedicated her life to up until that point could sniff out cancer, she knew just what she wanted to do.
That year, Cindy and her training partner completed an intensive course in California, then returned to Alabama and got right to work.
They’ve trained 12 dogs, so far, to recognize pads with urine, plasma or tissue samples of cancer on them.
Dogs have incredibly sensitive noses – about 10,000 times more so than humans’ own senses of smell.
This allows them to detect far more subtle molecular biomarkers than we ever could, without putting a person through an expensive machine or sending a sample for costly lab work.
In the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine study, published Monday, the researchers trained three beagles to sit when they smelled non-small cell lung cancer in a blood sample.
The dogs detected cancer with 97 sensitivity and 96 percent accuracy – indicating that they are a highly effective, if small, team.
And Cindy says her dogs are that accurate, too.
So far, she’s trained 12 dogs to detect cancer at her Birmingham facility since she went through her own training course in 2016.
Most of the dogs – of all shapes, sizes, breeds and ages – belong to clients, but two of Cindy has trained two of her older dogs to search out cancer.
Nibbler, a nine-year-old long-coated Chihuahua, and Obi, a five-or-so-year-old rescue Dachshund can sniff with the best of them, Cindy says.
‘My little guys, in terms of accuracy, are on the same level, it’s just the amount of time during the day [they may not be able to handle],’ she says.
As the lung cancer study’s authors seemed to note, beagles are naturals, and Cindy says bigger breeds like German shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and Weimaraners all make good cancer sniffers, in part because they have a lot of stamina.
Cindy can’t yet use her dogs to diagnose patients but is currently in the process of partnering with an ovarian cancer researcher for a study (she isn’t allowed to disclose who or what institution ‘the gentleman’ is affiliated with yet).
Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to detect and often proves a silent killer because it’s caught too late to be treated effectively.
So if Cindy’s dogs can sniff it out, they will be the veritable ‘Holy Grail’ of cancer screening.
‘The main problem everyone has is getting to the point where they can obtain cancer samples,’ Cindy explains.
‘It’s backwards – normally the researcher would write a proposal,’ but with cancer sniffing dogs, the trainers are the ones to researchers and say ‘”here’s this project, here’s my dogs, here’s my money, let’s do this.”‘
Cindy is hopeful that dogs will not only be studied more for cancer detection accuracy, but that scientists will be able to work out what exactly it is that dogs are smelling when they smell cancer.
‘If a dog can detect stage 1 cancer, and a doctor can’t find it on any of a patient’s scans, and eventually it does show up, if we can figure out what it is that the dog is smelling, what that magical mix of compounds is,’ Cindy says, then we could catch more cancer earlier.
In the meantime, she’s training up another two of her own dogs plus several for clients.
‘Everyone that I know has known someone that has gone through cancer, or they’ve lost someone to cancer, and thy feel like this is their way of trying to help and give back,’ says Cindy.