With 220 olfactory receptors, a dog’s sense of smell dwarfs that of most animals. 

Every day, federal, state, and local government agencies rely on their four-footed employees’ uncanny sniffing abilities to locate everything from illegal drugs and hazardous materials to lost individuals and homicide victims. Now, medical researchers hope to harness canine olfaction as a new cancer detection method. 

A ongoing scientific study is exploring the possibility of training new detection dogs capable of sensing volatile organic compounds (VOC) –– biological odorants that undergo minute configurations during the onset of ovarian cancer. The project is a collaboration between the Working Dog Center of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, the physics and astronomy department of Penn’s School of Arts and Science, Penn’s Gynecologic Oncology division, and the Monell Chemical Senses Center

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Its key figures are McBaine, Ohlin, and Tsunami –– a springer spaniel, Labrador retriever, and German shepherd currently undergoing highly specialized detection training, which will allow them to help physicians diagnose ovarian cancer at a very early stage. 

Dogs Sniffing Out Ovarian Cancer: A Step Back To Move Forward?

"Prior to the advent of modern quantitative clinical testing, physicians used olfaction to help with disease diagnosis,” said analytical chemist and adjunct professor George Preti, speaking to Medical News Today. “In this research, we are reaching back to move forward by using sensitive biological and analytical sensors to detect ovarian cancer's odorous signature."

Ovarian cancer, like many other kinds of cancer, lacks an effective, programmatic screening strategy. For this reason, any advancements in diagnosis may help suppress the disease that currently kills 14,230 of the 22,240 women it infects annually. 

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"These odorants remain a relatively untapped source for cancer detection information,” said Cynthia Otto, director of the Working Dog Center. “By utilizing the acute sense of smell in detection dogs in conjunction with chemical and nanotechnology methods, we hope to develop a new system of screening for ovarian cancer using analysis of odorants to facilitate early detection and help decrease future cancer deaths."

Ovarian cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women. According to the American Cancer Society, the risk of developing the disease is about one in 72, and the risk of dying from ovarian cancer is about one in 100. The disease primarily develops in older women above the age of 63.