The amazing dogs that are being trained to detect cancer

Medical Detection Dogs is a charity group that was set up in 2008 in Milton Keynes, England.  It is run my mainly volunteers who work tirelessly to ensure that all the dogs are well looked after and appropriately trained.  None of the dogs ever have a kennel, and instead, they are allowed to roam around the charity’s headquarters as they please.

There are two main portions that apply to this charity’s mission.  Firstly, the charity trains and provides Medical Alert Assistant Dogs.  These dogs are trained in a similar way to guide dogs and they have a duty to perform towards their service users by helping the owner to manage their specific condition.  They can help with conditions such as diabetes, allergies and narcolepsy.  The other thing that this charity provides is Cancer Detection Dogs.  The charity has 15 of these dogs and the Buckinghamshire NHS Trust at Wycombe Hospital supports their training and research.  These dogs are able to detect cancer by simply sniffing in changes in urine samples in cancer sufferers.  Presently, although in the early stages, it looks as though this technique could be successful in detecting prostate, bladder and urinary tract cancers.  In even earlier stages of research is sniffing the breath, which could potentially even detect the early stages of breast cancer.  One particular dog in this group has proven to have a 93 per cent rate of accuracy in successfully finding the cancerous samples.

Whilst is it not being suggested that the dogs should stay in surgeries and clinics all the time, sniffing patients to get a diagnosis, it would be beneficial for dogs to help researchers by supporting the testing and research process.

Currently, the charity is running a clinical trial that is in a study phase of screening over 2000 patients for prostate cancer.  Dogs could become a second-line screening tool for detecting this form of cancer.  Prostate cancer carried some risks.  Firstly, taking a biopsy is very painful for the patient.  It can also cause an infection due to the high bacteria level near the prostate.  Using dogs to sniff urine samples in this case wouldn’t necessarily be conclusive diagnoses, but would allow the doctor to make a more informed decision about whether taking a biopsy is entirely necessary.

Dr. Guest, the founder of the charity had initially set up the cause to train Medical Detection Dogs, but one day, one of the assistance dogs jumped up at her, behaving in a strange manner.  This alerted the doctor to a cancerous tumor deep in her left breast.  The cancer was detected in the very early stages and was completely treatable.  This gave the doctor a reason to investigate the possibility that dogs could be used to detect cancer in patients who may be suffering from cancer.

A bio-detection room is at the heart of the charity’s headquarters.  This allows the dogs to work every day and helps them to hone their skills in accurately sniffing out cancer.  At the moment, the charity has 7 dogs that are allocated to breast cancer detection.  Only half of these dogs will be successful in being taken through to the study.  Each dog has 4 sessions a week with the trainer, who spends around 20 minutes with the dog during each session.  This form of one to one training ensures that the dogs can learn independently and free from distractions.  The dogs must go through the process of sniffing some breath sample strips during this session.  The breath samples are provided by Wycombe hospital and come from women who have had a breath sample taken as part of their testing procedure.

If the trials work and the dogs prove to be successful, then in the near future, we could see dogs and humans working together in the medical field to help save lives.