With the help of man’s best friend, scientists at the Prostate Cancer Foundation in Santa Monica have proven that a dog’s nose can be an accurate early detector for prostate cancer.
The implications of their recently released study are enormous as prostate cancer is one of the biggest killers for men in the US.
The team of researchers from the PCF, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Johns Hopkins University, and Medical Detection Dogs in the UK seek to use findings from this study to eventually develop a “robotic dog nose” — potentially taking the form of a smartphone app that detects prostate cancer from urine samples.
In America, prostate cancer affects one in eight men in their lifetime and will kill more than 34,000 men in 2021, according to data from the PCF.
“Research has shown it can take prostate cancer 10 to 15 years to metastasize and spread outside the prostate where it becomes potentially incurable,” said Jonathan W. Simons, MD, PCF president and CEO, and study co-author. “Catching prostate cancer early means potentially curing tens of thousands of men from a disease that if undetected may kill them.”
Existing early detection tests have already cut prostate cancer deaths in the US by 53 percent in the last 20 years — the largest decrease in deaths of any type of cancer.
Even so, these tests come with their limitations and new methods could save millions more.
For example, Simons said the commonly used PSA blood test comes up positive for two types of benign prostate diseases and can miss some of the most rapidly growing prostate cancers.
“The research that was reported with canine biodetection is actually designed to find the most fast growing and aggressive form of prostate cancer,” said Simons. “So what the PSA test does not do really well the dogs do incredibly well.”
For the study a Labrador and a Vizsla were trained to detect the smell of prostate cancer in urine samples collected from patients with the disease, including Gleason 9 prostate cancer — the most lethal type that would benefit the most from early detection.
“Dogs smell with 300 million sensors and we have only five million,” said Simons. “Dogs have 60 times more sensory neurons in their nose than homo sapiens.”
Scientists have believed dogs are capable of detecting prostate cancer in urine samples since the mid-2000s, but they have not known what precise molecules they are detecting. This missing information is the key to building a machine olfaction diagnostic tool that can be rolled out in doctors offices and pharmacies across the country.
The PCF’s latest research not only scientifically verified that dogs are accurate prostate cancer detectors but offered several clues as to what molecules they may be detecting.
“Dogs can smell multiple inputs at one. It’s like a barcode; the dog brain doesn’t just look at the black and white stripes it looks at the entire barcode,” said Simons. “So we are trying to understand the barcode for ‘this is cancer’, because we are trying to build an artificial dog that reads the barcode in the urine.”
While a robotic smartphone nose that can detect cancer may sound straight out of a science fiction novel, this type of technology is not as far away as many might think.
In fact it’s already here. Airport x-ray machines have been using sniffer devices to detect molecules in explosives for many years. A team of MIT researchers are already developing a smartphone app prototype for a machine olfaction cancer detection tool.
The applications of such a device are far reaching and research indicates it could potentially be used for early detection of lung cancer in breath samples.
“Early detection can mean the difference between life and death,” said Simons. “Results could now lead to the future development of a more sensitive and specific prostate cancer diagnostic beyond the current PSA test.”
Although more research is necessary, it is not unreasonable to believe that a day will come when men’s smartphones will alert them that they are at risk for an aggressive form of prostate cancer years before doctors notice a rise in PSA levels.
These are pretty exciting developments all thanks to the super smelling skills of furry friends.