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What Ovarian Cancer Smells Like: Ask a Dog

Ovarian cancer detected by dogs

Doctors are limited in their ability to effectively screen for ovarian cancer, a type of cancer that is challenging to detect, especially in its early stages. If all goes well, physicians and women could be calling in the dogs to help, because it seems if you want to know what ovarian cancer smells like, you should ask a dog.

What role could dogs play in ovarian cancer?

The incredible olfactory (smell) abilities of dogs serve our four-legged companions well for sniffing out food, prey, and danger in the environment. But their sense of smell may also help women and their doctors uncover the early stages of ovarian cancer.

Experts from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Working Dog Center, along with others from Penn’s School of Arts and Science Penn’s Gynecologic Oncology division, and the Monell Chemical Senses Center, have been training dogs to detect the unique odors associated with early-stage ovarian cancer.

What does ovarian cancer smell like? Some dogs have been able to accurately recognize the distinct odors emitted by volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during the early stages of the disease in women.

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Going to the dogs
For now, researchers have worked with three dogs—a springer spaniel, Labrador retriever, and German shepherd—and donated samples of blood and tissue from women with and without ovarian cancer. Along with nanotechnology and sophisticated chemical techniques, the dogs’ sense of smell is helping scientists in their quest to develop a new way to screen for ovarian cancer.

Dogs are also being used to help detect other forms of cancer. A study published in Gut reported on a Labrador who could detect colon cancer with 95 percent accuracy from stool and breath samples. Another study reported on a dog that identified lymph node cancer in its owner, while researchers also have documented success working with dogs who detect breast, lung, prostate, and bladder cancers.

In Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine, Italian researchers pointed out that dogs are widely used to sniff out bombs and as part of emergency rescue operations because of their superior sense of smell, which “is characterized by a detection threshold as low as parts per trillion.” When combined with nanotechnology and other techniques, a dog’s extraordinary olfactory abilities could be a boon to ovarian cancer detection and treatment.

The bottom line
The National Cancer Institute estimates 22,240 new cases of ovarian cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2013, and that 14,030 women will succumb to the disease. It’s too soon to call in the dogs to tell us what ovarian cancer smells like for these women, but hopefully in the near future our canine friends will play a life-saving role in this quest.

Lippi G, Cervellin G. Canine olfactory detection of cancer versus laboratory testing: myth or opportunity? Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine 2012 Mar; 50(3): 435-39
National Cancer Institute
Sonoda H et al. Colorectal cancer screening with odour material by canine scent detection. Gut 2011 Jan 31; 60: 814-19
University of Pennsylvania

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