The charity teaching clever canines to sniff out cancer

A crack team of super-sniffing canines could one day soon test people for cancer, helping more at-risk Kiwis get the life-saving treatment they need earlier.

The animals are being trained by K9 Medical Detection NZ (K9MD), a Dunedin-based charitable trust teaching dogs to sniff out bowel, prostate and ovarian cancer, with the goal of providing New Zealanders with a new non-invasive method for cancer testing. 

K9MD is one of the inspiring charities chosen to take part in Z Energy's (Z) Good in the Hood campaign for 2023. Good in Hood supports local community groups by giving them a share of $1 million to do good in their neighbourhood.

Abbie Bull, Head of Sustainability and Community at Z, said it’s fantastic to be able to support organisations like K9 Medical Detection and their mission to improve the health of New Zealanders. "We've supported K9MD through Good in the Hood for a couple of years now and it’s awesome to follow their journey in helping the early detection of cancer and other diseases". 

K9MD works closely with a wide team of doctors, scientists, and health professionals, training its team of dogs to test urine samples and detect the unique scent, called a volatile organic compound, given off by cancer. 

"Every single cancer has a different signature odour that comes from these volatile organic compounds, so each of our dogs is trained to detect that scent for specific cancers," says Melanie Kerr, the charity's ambassador.  

"It's just using that incredible ability that dogs have naturally."

The charity currently works with eight dogs: Levi, Weta and Hero, who are detecting bowel cancer; Frieda, Ace and Magic, who are training to detect prostate cancer; and Hogan and Hunter, who are beginning to learn to detect ovarian cancer. The dogs are a mix of breeds, including German shepherds, golden retrievers, labradors, and a springer spaniels, and are all "working dogs from proven lines". 

The ultimate aim of the charity is for the dogs to provide additional support to the public health system, working alongside other diagnostic tools available to identify at-risk patients sooner and minimise the spread of cancer. 

The charity was founded in 2018 by Pauline Blomfield, a dog obedience trainer intent on harnessing the incredible sense of smell dogs have. While humans have five million scent receptors in our noses, dogs have up to 300 million, meaning they can smell 1-2 parts per trillion - the human equivalent of detecting one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.

Kerr says one of the main advantages of using dogs to detect cancer over other testing methods is that canine testing is completely non-invasive. 

All testing of the urine samples takes place in a controlled clinical environment at the charity's Dunedin clinical facilities, and Kerr says the dogs' training is going "incredibly well" so far.

"Their accuracy is phenomenal, they can test potentially hundreds of samples very quickly and accurately," she says. 

"And just like any kind of professional medical worker, the dogs have to be robustly and rigorously trained and accredited."

Both Levi and Weta have already passed clinical trials detecting bowel cancer (in a proof-of-concept validation test last year Weta had a success rate of 100 percent both in detecting urine samples with bowel cancer and ignoring samples without the disease) and Magic recently 

received prostate cancer validation, correctly identifying samples with prostate cancer 87.76 percent of the time and ignoring samples with no cancer 98.8 percent of the time.

Training is also well underway teaching Hunter and Hogan to detect ovarian cancer.  

Kerr says the dogs live with foster families at night and come into the charity's facilities for their "day job". 
"They live with beautiful families and they get picked up every morning to go to work - so they have a really lovely work-life balance and are treated like the superstars that they are."

The charity is currently seeking to expand its facilities in Dunedin and is raising money to build a new purpose-built centre so it can train even more of man's best friend to help us stay healthy and well. 

This year, Z will surpass the $10 million milestone in donations to community groups and charities throughout Aotearoa New Zealand since 2011, largely enabled through its Good in the Hood programme. 

Customers who shop in-store at Z are given an orange token to pop in one of four boxes to vote for their favourite local group, like K9 Medical Detection, with $4,000 per Z station split between the participating groups based on the number of votes they receive. To vote for K9 Medical Detection, make a purchase at either Z Mosgiel, Z Palmerston or Z Green Island before October 23 and use your orange token to cast your vote.  

Article created in partnership with Z Energy.