NZ dog being taught to detect signs of ovarian cancer

A springer spaniel puppy is being trained to sniff out early signs of ovarian cancer.
A springer spaniel puppy is being trained to sniff out early signs of ovarian cancer. Photo credit: K9 Medical Detection via RNZ

Imagine a dog that could be women's best friend, by sniffing out the early signs of ovarian cancer.

A medical charity is trying to raise $250,000 to train a springer spaniel pup to do exactly that. The group believes it would be the first of its kind.

Dogs have far more sensitive noses than humans, and have been trained to sniff out other cancers, with detection rates in some cases over 99 percent.

Director of K9 Medical Detection Pauline Blomfield thinks they've found the right pup for the job.

"It really just depends on our funding as we go down the track, which career path he will take, as to whether he will be added to our prostate cancer detection team or bowel cancer, or hopefully it could actually be the first ovarian cancer detection dog."

The dog in question is a springer spaniel named Ace and Blomfield says it costs around $250,000 per year to train the dogs.

"The dog is sort of just one section of it. The science behind it is absolutely massive, so we will start with having our cancer cells growing in the laboratory and make sure that all the training samples are pure.

"We know what we're working with, they've got great integrity, and we have a full scientific and clinical team to keep us on."

While humans can't exactly say what cancer smells like, the dogs have an ability much greater than our own.

"What happens is there's something called volatile's that are released from the cancer cells, and that's what the dogs are smelling. So you have to remember that the the dogs olfactory abilities are about 40 times greater than that of humans, so you and I can't smell it."

And the dogs can pick it up despite the cancers often being deeply embedded in the human body.

"There have been cases where pet dogs have indicated on their owners, you know they've kept nudging them and nudging them in certain places and the person has finally said, well, actually my dog thinks there's something wrong. I better go and see my GP."

The dogs trained for cancer detection smell up to hundreds of samples per day, Blomfield says. They begin around 10 months old depending on maturity.

Right now, Ace is at the beginning of his programme.

"The trainer is doing lots of work with him and it's exciting work, it's fun for the puppy, you know they're helping them to build, drive and just be prepared for when we do actually start on odor."

Blomfield explains that once the dogs are ready, they will help detect cancer in patient's urine samples.

"The big thing for people to realise is that our dogs don't go out into the community sniffing people, that's always the big concern. What we're really doing is developing a urine test for early cancer detection.

"The other thing to remember is that our testing has to be robust and rigorous. It has to meet the same sort of standards that you would expect if you were to go into the chemist and buy some cough medicine. The testing that has been done before that gets to you is really robust and we adhere to those same standards."

They train the dogs with positive reinforcement. Blomfield explains that they know in advance which urine samples have cancer in them and they encourage dogs when they successfully sniff out the correct sample.

Some dogs differ in their reaction to finding a positive example. Blomfield says one of their dogs will sit next to a positive sample then return to its trainer, and another will stand rock-solid in front of a positive sample.

"The dogs are very clear when they find a positive sample."

If Ace is successful in his training, it could be a fantastic thing for women's health.

"Just to give you an idea, our bowel cancer detection dog has a 99.8 percent success rate."