New Research Uses Dogs to Sniff Out Ovarian Cancer

By Ashley Watson

ovarian-cancerOn Monday, August 26th, many people celebrated National Dog Day. At Vetri-Science® Laboratories, we’ve decided to show our appreciation for our canine friends by highlighting the amazing work that dogs do for humans. One of the most well known qualities that all dogs share is an acute sense of smell. While some hunting dogs are bred for their highly accurate nose, many professionals use dogs to sniff out drugs, bombs, and even certain diseases and cancers.

A new research project is underway that will study a canine’s ability to sniff out ovarian cancer in women. In collaboration with Penn State, the Hope Cancer Foundation has donated $80,000 to make this effort a reality. Currently, there is not an accurate method of detection for ovarian cancer, particularly in the early stages.

ovarian-cancerAccording to the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, many cancer patients have a higher survival rate when there’s an “availability of early detection tests and improved treatments. Unfortunately, this is not the case with ovarian cancer, which is still the deadliest of all gynecologic cancers.” Early detection is key in the fight against ovarian cancer.

One of the reasons this type of cancer is difficult to detect and diagnose is that women with ovarian cancer exhibit the same symptoms of common and often benign processes in the body as women age. A good example is the weight gain, bloating, and constipation that women often experience during menopause.

Part of what makes this new research so exciting is that dogs have shown the ability to detect minute traces of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are known to be altered in the earliest stages of ovarian cancer. Electronic devices will be used in conjunction with the dogs to help advance the technology that has been successful in the past. Trainers from Penn State’s Working Dog Center are currently working with three dogs who have been chosen for this project to sniff out these odorants.

ovarian-cancerMcBaine (a springer spaniel), Ohlin (A Labrador retriever), and Tsunami (a German shepherd) are being trained to make the distinction between healthy blood and tissue and samples from ovarian cancer patients. These samples are donated to Penn Medicine’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology specifically for this research. Future research will include more detailed measurements of different tumor grades in ovarian cancer.

About 3% of all women with cancer have ovarian cancer, and it is estimated that 14,230 women will die of ovarian cancer in 2013 alone. The American Cancer Society reports that ovarian cancer “ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, and a woman’s risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 72. Her lifetime chance of dying from ovarian cancer is about 1 in 100.”

The researchers at Penn State have high hopes that using canine olifaction to help diagnose this disease could increase survival rates in cases of early detection. Even people who don’t own dogs must admit that they play many important roles in our lives. This new research is just one more example of the potential roles that dogs can have in saving lives.

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