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Dogs Sniff For Cancer

Dogs can detect cancer through their sense of smell, according to a study published last weekend in the British medical journal BMJ. Three cocker spaniels, a Labrador, a papillon and a mongrel were trained by sniffing a urine samples during weeks of training. Gas chromatography studies have shown that some tumors exude minute amounts of formaldehyde, alkanes and benzene derivatives not found in healthy tissue.

Overall, the dogs had a 41% success rate. Some scientists suggested that they just needed better training. However, all six of the dogs were able to detect cancer in the urine of a man who was used as a control (thought to be cancer-free). When tested further, he was found to have a kidney tumor.

This is not the first time a dog has been trained to detect cancer. In 1990, a bomb-sniffing schnauzer in Tallahassee, Florida was retrained to sniff humans lying on a table and to place his paw on tumors. In tests, the dog correctly found melanomas on six of seven patients.

Humans have also sniffed for diagnostic clues; Hippocrates described the fruity odor of diabetes in the breath.

Even though dogs have the edge on humans when it comes to the sense of smell, people are fighting back with electronic noses. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology have been working on a sniffing machine called the E-Nose. It uses computers and sensing film to do the work. The intent is to develop a device that can smell "problem" contaminants in the air before they become apparent (and a danger) to the astronauts. The paperback-book sized unit has already taken a ride on the Space Shuttle and proved that it was able to smell and identify contaminants in the air.

Science fiction fans may recall the modded dogs in John Brunner's 1976 novel Shockwave Rider; they were genetically modified for higher intelligence, and were used to sniff out people who lie or use undesirable substances based on their body odor.

Read more about cancer-sniffing dogs at Moist Nose Shows Promise in Tracking Down Cancers; read more at the Electronic Nose website.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 9/29/2004)

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