Puppies at Penn to sniff out ovarian cancer
In the battle against ovarian cancer, three puppies at the University of Pennsylvania will be on the front lines.
The pups – Ohlin and Thunder, both Labradors, and McBain, a Springer Spaniel – have been conscripted to lead the charge in a novel collaboration announced last week between Penn and the Monell Chemical Sciences Center.
Ovarian cancer claims the lives of more than 14,000 women every year and is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in the nation. The new collaboration takes aim at the silent killer with a combination of chemistry, nanotechnology — and dogs.
Turns out, each cancer has its own odor. And what better sensor is there to detect a faint scent than a dog’s nose?
Researchers at Penn and Monell recently received an $80,000 grant from the Kaleidoscope of Hope Foundation to develop new ways of sniffing out gynecological malignancies.
Using man’s best friend to detect cancer isn’t new. Studies in California, Chicago and Europe in the last decade have employed trained canines to detect lung and breast cancer.
A group in Sweden had done some preliminary investigations with dogs and ovarian cancer, but the professor in charge is retiring and he was using his own personal dogs, said Dr. Cynthia Otto, director of the Working Dog Center and Associate Professor of Critical Care at Penn Vet.
“He’s been advising us along the way to we don’t repeat the same mistakes he made along the way,” Otto said. “We haven’t done cancer work before.”
Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to detect in its early stages because its symptoms — constipation, weight gain, bloating, or more frequent urination — are easily confused with other ailments.
If it’s diagnosed early, though, ovarian cancer has a survival rate of 90 percent. Unfortunately, its often not detected until it is too late. An effective screening protocol doesn’t yet exist and a doctor’s sight and touch haven’t been enough to detect cases in its first stages.
Each cancer has its own signature scent, however. And even before ovarian cancer can be detected by current methods, it creates minute quantities of “odorants,” Otto said. A doctor’s nose isn’t nearly sensitive enough. But the odorants can be sensed by trained dogs.
In the new program, scientists from Penn Medicine’s Division of Gynecologic Oncology will take tissue and blood samples from both healthy and ovarian cancer patients.
The samples will be analyzed by chemists, scientists working with nanotech – and the puppies at the Working Dog Center.
“We’ve been training them since they’ve been 8-weeks old,” Otto said. “They’re all fabulous and they are very strong in olfaction.”
They already have experience with bomb sniffing and human remains detection. Cancer detection isn’t that much different, she said.
The dogs will be exposed to healthy samples and cancer samples in containers they can’t access, but are vented so they can smell them.
“We’ll train them to alert us when they discover the samples of cancer patients,” Otto said.
When they distinguish the correct one, they’re rewarded with food or a toy.
“Some are very much into their ball,” Otto laughs. “We will do what makes the most sense for each dog and what makes the dog want to work.”