Health & Medicine

Dogs to join medical staff at UC Davis to sniff out cancer

A team of doctors at UC Davis, veterinarians and animal behaviorists are training Charlie, a four-month-old German shepherd, and Alfie, a four-month-old Labradoodle, to screen samples of saliva, breath, and urine to detect cancer. The puppies got in a little play during a news conference at the UC Davis Cancer Center, Monday, August 17, 2015.
A team of doctors at UC Davis, veterinarians and animal behaviorists are training Charlie, a four-month-old German shepherd, and Alfie, a four-month-old Labradoodle, to screen samples of saliva, breath, and urine to detect cancer. The puppies got in a little play during a news conference at the UC Davis Cancer Center, Monday, August 17, 2015. lsterling@sacbee.com

UC Davis may soon be using dogs to sniff out cancer in patients as a result of innovative research that could help doctors make cancer diagnoses earlier.

A team of doctors, veterinarians and animal behaviorists are training Alfie, a Labradoodle, and Charlie, a German shepherd, to develop their already terrific olfactory powers to better screen samples of saliva, breath and urine for cancer.

Researchers note that dogs can recognize melanoma as well as bladder, lung, breast and ovarian cancers. Dogs have also been trained to distinguish breath samples of lung and breast cancer patients from healthy individuals.

“We don’t know what they are detecting but that’s the first step,” said Dr. Hilary Brodie, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Otolaryngology, at a news conference Monday. “The next step will be to identify what these organic compounds are and then to develop the technologies to assist in enhancing our abilities.”

Current cancer screening methods often detect disease at a later stage, often past the time when treatment is most effective and the cases are less challenging, according to a UC Davis Health System press release.

Medical science has been developing expensive new tests to try to detect the presence of cancer, said Dr. Ralph de Vere White, distinguished professor of urology and director of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center.

“Dogs have been doing this, detecting disease in the urine of people suspected of having bladder cancer, for example,” said de Vere White in a news release. “This work marries sophisticated technology with low-tech, yet sophisticated, dogs’ noses to see if they can help us identify the molecules that differentiate cancer from non-cancer.”

Over the past 15 years, Dina Zaphiris, director of the In Situ Foundation based in Chico, has trained more than 30 pooches, including Alfie and Charlie, to detect cancer. She said almost any dog can do the work, but she prefers to train German shepherds, Labradors, poodles and herding breeds because they’re hard-working.

“I love German shepherds,” Zaphiris said at the news conference. “It’s not only their nose, it’s their work ethic, it’s their drive, it’s their motivation.”

Some of the training involves exposing dogs to serum from patients with cancer and then to serum from patients with no cancer, and then training them to respond to the one positive result and ignore everything else.

“Our new canine colleagues represent a unique weapon in the battle against cancer,” said Dr. Peter Belafsky, UC Davis professor of otolaryngology, in the news release. “It’s the first of its kind at UC Davis, and the dogs’ incredible talent for scent detection could offer us humans a real jump on diagnosing cancer much earlier and thus save many more lives.”

Bill Lindelof: 916-321-1079, @Lindelofnews

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