Lung cancer is the biggest cause of cancer death in New Zealand largely because it is often detected late, but now Waikato University researchers believe dogs could be the key to saving lives.
The Waikato Medical Research Foundation has just given Dr Tim Edwards $30,000 dollars to kick off the research.
He and his team are training pet dogs, including his own dog Tui, to sniff breath and saliva samples from the Waikato District Health board's respiratory clinic.
"We will bring those breath and saliva samples into the lab and will have the dogs here evaluate those samples and see if they can tell us which ones are cancer positive and which ones are cancer negative," Dr Edwards told Newshub.
Sensitive snouts are a well-known weapon in biosecurity, rescue operations and bomb detection.
And studies offshore suggest dogs may be able to sniff out even the lowest concentrations of aromatic compounds that come from tumours.
Here the focus will be on people with suspected lung cancer - one of New Zealand's biggest killers.
"When the dogs sniff they are breaking an infrared beam and if they don't like what's in there, if it's negative, they activate this switch which goes to the next sample, and if their nose stays in and breaks the beam for long enough it's considered a positive sample and it's treat time," Dr Edwards said.
Early results using the dogs to detect compounds in different aquatic species are encouraging.
"The promise this technology brings is quick and cheap cancer detection solutions," he said.
Dr Edwards says one of the first things people ask him is what are the dogs smelling.
"If we could answer that question and list a few chemicals or something, that would make people happier about the science," he said.
"They're probably actually smelling a whole bouquet of compounds, and each dog's definition is likely to be a bit different."
He is using a range of pet dogs.
"It's not about the breed, as all dogs have ridiculously sensitive olfaction. It's about their temperament and willingness to work," he said.
There's currently work being done on e-noses and electronic detection, and Dr Edwards says one day people may be able to breathe into a machine and have diseases diagnosed, but that's not close to reality at the moment.
"Right now we do have dogs, and they have some potential according to existing research but we need to clarify how accurate and reliable they can be."