How You Can Help Cancer-Detecting Dogs Help Us

Nose of dog

Elisabeth is a 13-time Emmy-winner, a critically acclaimed personal finance author and a 20-year consumer advocate for programs such as Good Morning America and The Dr. Oz Show. Connect with her via Twitter @ElisabethLeamy and on her website, Leamy.com.

This week I had my best assignment ever for The Dr. Oz Show! I got to travel to the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Vet Dog Training Center in Philadelphia to witness how they are teaching these magnificent animals to detect cancer. It was heaven as a dog lover because, though the dogs were smart, talented workers, they were also adorable, playful critters. Not to mention as a health geek, it was amazing to see the sheer ambitiousness of what they’re trying to accomplish.

Watch the show to see the dogs in action, but here’s the lowdown: dogs’ sense of smell is about a million times more sensitive than ours. They can detect a single drop of blood in two Olympic size swimming pools —that’s down to the parts per trillion. I watched as three different pooches went through their paces and nailed it more than 90 percent of the time. No other early detection test even comes close for ovarian cancer.

The trainers put a single drop of blood plasma from an ovarian cancer patient in a metal cartridge. Then they put other scents in 11 other cartridges, including one from a benign ovarian cyst and another with normal ovarian tissue. The goal was to confuse the dogs —it didn’t happen— and to try to hone in on what it is about the odor of cancerous tissue that sticks out to them.

That’s where researchers from the Monell Center come in. They study the chemical makeup of tastes and smells. They’ve partnered with the University of Pennsylvania to try to identify just what individual component the dogs are smelling. It’s some sort of volatile organic compound that ovarian cancer tissue emits. The eventual goal is to create a “mechanical nose” that can “smell it” just like the dogs do.

So, no, there won’t be a dog in your doctor’s office prepared to sniff you anytime soon. The mechanical nose would be able to reach millions more people quickly and efficiently. It won’t win your heart like the dogs, but it might save your life some day.

Ovarian cancer is exceedingly difficult to diagnose early. And most people who are diagnosed at stage 1 survive. But most people diagnosed at stage 3 die, it’s that cut and dry, that grim.

Here’s how you can help: The University of Pennsylvania and The Monell Center need donations. They say people probably view medicine as cold and clinical and don’t quite get how these slobbery, shedding canines can contribute. So here’s some humor they shared: What’s better than a cat scan? A dog scan! After seeing these dogs in action, I couldn’t agree more.