November 22, 2013

Cancer-sniffing dogs

The notion of using dogs to sniff out undetected cases of cancer in humans has been around for a long time. If you can find a tumor early, there's a higher chance of removing it surgically and putting and end it to it before it spreads.

It hardly seems implausible. When I had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1996, I developed such terrible bad breath that other people noticed something was wrong with me. Six rounds of chemotherapy later, my halitosis (along with my hair) was gone.

It's easy to find anecdotal evidence online from owners who swear Old Fido became agitated months before the oncologist discovered a tumor. That raises the question of whether dogs could be trained to notice cancer in strangers or if what they are noticing is changes in the smell of beloved owners.

From the NYT, a story about an organic chemist at the U. of Pennsylvania attempting to invent a mechanical bloodhound, as it were, to sniff out ovarian cancer, a particularly hard-to-detect cancer. 
What Does Cancer Smell Like? 
Cancer cells, though they don’t alter human metabolism overall, can have altered metabolisms themselves. That means the substances they release could differ from those generated by healthy cells. This idea has been around for decades, but only very recently have biochemical and sensor technology advanced to the point where we can develop portable, hand-held sniffing machines. 
Electronic noses have the potential to detect even very small amounts of molecules — but they need to be programmed to look for specific signs wafting up from patient samples. ...
A work in progress, the electronic nose is, for now, an example of how modern medicine can look for answers in unusual places. The impetus that finally pushed Preti and his team to seriously investigate the possibility of cancer detection by smell traces its roots to a dog. In 1989, a letter published in The Lancet reported that a woman had come into the doctor’s office to have a mole looked at. She hadn’t noticed it until her collie-Doberman mix began to sniff the spot intently — even through her pants — and tried to bite it off when she wore shorts. The mole turned out to be an early-stage malignant melanoma, inspiring researchers to test whether dogs, whose smell machinery is at least 10,000 times as sensitive as ours, can tell healthy samples from cancerous ones. 
The results from the dog tests have been inconclusive, but to Preti, who has mulled the idea that hidden cancers could be detected from smell molecules since the 1970s, they suggested that there was a real possibility for a new diagnostic. “We think that they’re present very early in the carcinoma process,” Preti said of the scents. “The main question is: Can we be as sensitive as the dogs in picking these things up?”

Here's an article about the three puppies (two Labradors and a Springer Spaniel) at Penn who are being trained to detect ovarian cancer to help calibrate the mechanical nose.

While I'm all in favor of robot noses catching up with dog noses, why not also try to breed dogs to get even better at cancer-sniffing than they already are? (We're talking about fighting cancer, after all. Dog breeding isn't all that cheap, but the idea of testing 100 dogs, finding the best male and female, mating them, and continuing on from there in the usual manner (lots of inbreeding) isn't all that expensive compared to the hundreds of billions invested in fighting cancer in other fashions. 

Maybe there are reasons that wouldn't work. Perhaps all the possibilities in canine DNA have already been exploited. 

But, mostly, the idea of breeding dogs for functional reasons doesn't seem to come up much these days. I read through a lot of public comments on the topic of cancer-sniffing dogs, and breeding just doesn't occur to people.

The general issue seems to be that people these days conceive of dog breeding in terms of looks rather than function. There are some dog breeders who make a fair amount of money breeding and training excellent gun dogs, but they are more in the business of brands than breeds. 

Breeding today reflects the Spirit of the Age: Breed is only skin deep, you know. They're all the same on the inside. All that matters is looks.

I'm sure that livestock breeding continues apace to come up with cows that produce more milk and the like. But dog breeding has always been an amateur and semi-pro activity. Back in the Darwin-Galton age, it produced an unbelievable profusion of dogs for different functions. (Let me make clear that Darwin's and Galton's intellectual achievements were more the product of living in an age fascinated by the scientific breeding of animals than the progenitors of that age.)

It's an interesting example of how the zeitgeist can cripple a seemingly unrelated field.


Anonymous said...

More likely, Progressives will train dogs to sniff out 'racists'.

countenance said...

And also notice the contradiction when dealing with two different subject matters.

Sniffing for cancer in humans: Do develop robotic technology, do not train and breed dogs

Picking crops: Do not develop robotic technology, do import millions of new people.

That's the angle I thought you were going to use when I was reading this.

Anonymous said...

"More likely, Progressives will train dogs to sniff out 'racists'."

Off topic but progressives with racist dogs are the funniest thing ever.

Nicky Haflinger said...

Interesting thing Steve, cows are usually bred for qualities other then increased milk production these days. The tradeoffs of increasing from the near order of magnitude we got over the last century are generally judged not worthwhile so disease resistance and other qualities are now selected for.

SGOTI said...

Apparently my last Weimaraner was selectively bred to sniff women in the crotch, the old perv.

Anonymous said...

"More likely, Progressives will train dogs to sniff out 'racists'."

Easier way. See who doesn't come on class trips.

"Angry mums and dads were sent a letter by Littleton Green Community School, in Huntingdon, Staffordshire, warning their children would be considered racist if they did not go on the school trip."

I can understand kids being penalized for not taking part in class projects but do schools now judge kids/parents as 'racist'?

NOTA said...

I'd also bet this has to do with what fits into the business models of pharmaceutical and medical device companies. If the cancer-sniffing dog won't be patentable, or it will be hard to get insurance to re-emburse for its use, or it will require a whole new, yet unimagined part of the FDA to regulate, then it may not happen, even if it's possible.

sunbeam said...

A sniffer that is sensitive and give you data you can feed directly into a computer is a very interesting thing to ponder.

Lot of uses I can think of for that.

And given time, and a bit of work, I think it would be interesting to see what other things it could tell us about people. Emotional state, arousal, etc.

Not a smoking gun on its own, but coupled with analysis of microgestures, pupil dilation, voice analysis...

Well I think in the long run it changes a whole lot of things. The sensors are getting there. The rest of it will take a while longer.

But it's coming. "Do it in the name of Profi... I mean Heave.. uh Homeland Security, you can justify it in the end."

Anonymous said...

Dog breeding is still functional in Europe where Shutzhund is practiced.

This is a good idea that you have, Steve.

Thinking about the ability of dogs to sniff cancer, it makes sense if you think about it. Their nose is the most sensitive sensory organ they have, and it is far more sensitive than the human nose. Cancer is very likely an obvious "something is different" smell to dogs. Dogs get cancer just like humans do, so it would be possible that traits to recognize cancer for what it is (i.e. impending death) might be selected for, back in the days before humans had domesticated dogs. Perhaps the cancer smell might trigger early grieving and preparation to move on in life without that family member, e.g. assuming a greater leadership or more independent role (e.g. starting their own pack).

BTW research indicates that wolf packs are really a family structure of breeding pair and offspring rather than a random pairing of wolves with one assuming an "alpha" mantle.

Anonymous said...

Wolf packs are more like marmoset troops than gibbon families. Wolves and marmosets aggregate around a dominant breeding pair and their immature children. Mature children, more loosely related individuals, and unrelated individuals may or may not stick around.

Gibbons, by contrast, have a strict nuclear family which ejects children once they are grown enough to be a rival to the same-sex parent.

pseudoerasmus said...

Look up the "Sulimov dog", a jackal-dog hybrid owned by Aeroflot. Russians are really good at brilliant but low-tech solutions. Can't imagine why some version of this dog can't be bred to be a proactive cancer-sniffing specialist.

Anonymous said...

Thinking about the ability of dogs to sniff cancer, it makes sense if you think about it. Their nose is the most sensitive sensory organ they have, and it is far more sensitive than the human nose. Cancer is very likely an obvious "something is different" smell to dogs.

Actually, the problem with dogs and their sniffers is that if you didn't wipe your arse well in the morning your oncologist will have you on chemo drip by the afternoon.

AllanF said...

NOTA wrote what I was going to write.

So I'll add... :)

The other thing going on is when you cross a litigious culture where every fault and circumstance must be exhaustively defined and assigned a responsible party with a technophilic culture where every phenomenon must be scientifically described and rigorously repeatable, you'll be laughed out of the room if you suggest a solution where the solution doesn't have a mathematical formula backing it up.

If you're unsure of this, look at the deference we give economists. These keynesian clowns have been doing the same thing for 5 years (25 if you look at Japan) to absolutely no avail, but their oh so important formulas suggest moar of the same will definitely make a difference, any day now -- and so everyone goes along with the futility.

TheLRC said...

Just want to note that it's only at iSteve that one can find posts like this -- genuine lateral thinking, putting together concepts no one else would, yielding real insights.

Kudos, Steve.

Dan Kurt said...

This parallel research, hi-tech not dog-tech, is now over 40 years old and continuing in the Private Sector. Visit this web site and learn:

Watch this video:

Send Dr. Robinson some money.

Dan Kurt

Mr. Anon said...

"I'm sure that livestock breeding continues apace to come up with cows that produce more milk and the like."

Does it? Perhaps farmers nowadays just rely on hormones to increase yield. I don't know. I'm a city-boy myself.

Anonymous said...

How terrible to be a dog, smell cancer on your puppies, your humans, and yourself, and to be able to do nothing about it.

NOTA said...

As a nitpick, it's not that a dog would smell cancer. A dog might be able to smell some consequence of the cancer. If this worked, it would be for specific types of cancer--some kind of tumor causes your level of some hormone to increase, and the dog smells that. Or a dog might smell the consequences of some broad problem (like immunosuppression) caused by the cancer. I'm pretty skeptical that there would be much a dog could get by smelling you that the right blood test wouldn't find, too.