London - Daisy the labrador is hard at work on a project that could change your life and mine. In her smart red jacket, she wanders around a metal carousel in a small centre outside Milton Keynes, sniffing at the different scents that are attached to its 12 spokes. Then she stops.
She’s found what she’s looking for and looks expectantly up at her handler - she knows that when she recognises this specific smell, she will soon get an edible reward.
While Daisy enjoys the process (and her dog biscuits) her actions are more than just a game - they have huge implications for all of us. Because what this seven-year-old dog is sniffing is a selection of samples from a local hospital. And she has just located the only one that came from a cancer patient.
Daisy, quite simply, is being taught to sniff out cancer. She is one of the world’s first bio-detection dogs - trained animals that may one day revolutionise medical diagnosis.
We all know that dogs have far more powerful noses than humans - indeed their sense of smell is up to 100,000 times better than ours. That skill has, of course, been put to good use for decades, in the form of drug-sniffing dogs at ferry terminals and airports as well as the Army’s bomb detection canines.
But, in recent years, a dedicated team of researchers has been developing what is potentially an even greater breakthrough.
Earlier this year, German research discovered that dogs could sniff out lung cancer from breath samples of sufferers. The four dogs in the study learned to get it right 71 percent of the time, far too high to be mere coincidence.
Closer to home came the story of British pensioner Maureen Burns, who made headlines when her collie-cross Max started sniffing her breath and nudging her right breast - where it turned out she had a tiny cancerous tumour developing that doctors hadn’t yet picked up.
A dog that can smell cancer before doctors can diagnose it? If it sounds far-fetched - a case of wishful thinking rather than genuine canine skill - then there is solid scientific theory behind it.
It’s believed that cancers produce volatile chemicals that dogs can be trained to smell, which could have dramatic implications for early diagnosis of the disease.
Does this mean that at some point in the future, every hospital and GP’s surgery could be equipped with a “sniffer dog” to pounce on anyone who has cancer?
No. For now, researchers are simply hoping to prove that if they demonstrate categorically that cancer does have a generic smell, then scientists could work towards creating a machine (known as an “electronic nose”) to perform the same function as a dog’s wet nose can: screening breath or urine samples to search for “cancer scent” with even greater ability than specially-trained dogs.
Unlike painful biopsies, this would undoubtedly make the process of diagnosis less invasive and far quicker - and more likely to be picked up earlier.
As Claire Guest, a specialist in human and animal behaviour and the doctor responsible for the British research into cancer sniffer-dogs, says: “One of the largest misunderstandings we face is that people think we are trying to say that dogs are better than machines - we’re not.
“There are already machines which act as ‘electronic noses’ that are designed to identify chemicals such as cocaine, and this is what we are trying to do with cancer.
“Of course, no dog is going to be 100 percent - but at the moment there is no machine out there that can do what the dogs are doing. Cancer detection is extremely invasive, so imagine if it could be picked up simply by a urine sample or blowing into a tube?”
Dr Guest has invited me along to spend the day at the headquarters of her trailblazing charity, Medical Detection Dogs, so that I can witness these “doctor dogs” in action.
Not only does the centre train dogs to sniff cancer, it’s also responsible for training “medical alert” dogs which live with people who have health problems.
They have taught 22 dogs to recognise when a diabetic’s blood sugar gets low and alert them to stop hypoglycaemia, aid narcoleptics by working out when an attack of sleep paralysis is about to start - and may soon be able to teach dogs to tell when someone with a severe allergy is about to have an allergic episode.
This all relates to the same idea - that dogs can recognise the minutest changes in smell when certain processes happen in the human body.
“We are only at the start of working out everything that dogs can detect,” Dr Guest says. “It would seem that almost any medical event has an odour change. The clever thing is that the dogs are able to work out what the norm is, and when it changes.”
While only a small group of people (mostly diabetics) have benefited from the services of the medical alert dogs so far, it is the charity’s cancer research work that could really make a difference to millions, and IÕm here to see what the fuss is all about.
On arrival at the centre in Buckinghamshire, I’m greeted by a pack of dogs of all shapes and sizes, scampering around on a patch of grass outside like any other beloved pets out for a walk in the sunshine.
Shouldn’t life-saving dogs behave a little more seriously? Rob Harris, the training co-ordinator, assures me that this “down-time” is essential.
“This is their time to come out and refresh their noses. It’s a great place for them to run around,” he says.
The dogs don’t spend every day at the centre, but usually come in two or three times a week. They either live with charity workers or full-time dog walkers - none spends its days kennelled.
At present, there are ten “cancer dogs” in the training programme, but they’re never all here at once. Today, it is Daisy the labrador that will demonstrate her skills, but hurtling around her at playtime is Ozzie, an 18-month-old border collie (he has even been to Crufts), Kizzy, a three-year-old cocker spaniel, and two new recruits, Alice, a six-month-old golden retriever, and Midas, seven months old, a Hungarian Vizsla (a breed of sleek red hunting dog).
Watching over them is the “veteran” of the centre, nine-year-old brown cocker spaniel Tangle. He was one of the original dogs that took part in the first cancer sniffing research in the world when he was little more than a puppy in 2002.
So how did it all come about? Dr Guest, it turns out, had long suspected that dogs may have cancer-detecting qualities. Having worked for almost 20 years for Hearing Dogs For The Deaf, she had come across several stories about dogs that had started to display peculiar behaviour when their owners had developed early-stage cancer.
“There seemed to be lots of anecdotal evidence - even a colleague of mine, Gill, told me about how her pet Dalmatian had started licking and sniffing a mole on her leg when she was in her 20s,” recounts Dr Guest, “She couldn’t even be in the same room as the dog.
“Eventually, she decided to go to the GP to have it removed - and a biopsy revealed it was malignant melanoma, the most aggressive form of skin cancer.”
Dr Guest teamed up with respected surgeon Dr John Church (whose other research has involved bringing back the use of maggots for cleaning wounds) in 2002 to try to prove this phenomenon was more than just coincidence.
The results of their study, in which the dogs were 56 percent accurate, sparked interest around the world. Since then, Dr Guest has been improving methods to make the dogs more accurate (using rewards has brought about the biggest change, perhaps not surprisingly). - Daily Mail