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Research grant of more than $200,000 for new ways to detect cancer

17 May 2018

Dr Tim Edwards and his dog.

Can dogs really sniff out cancer? Thanks to a grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand  University of Waikato’s Tim Edwards can now test the theory in a clinical setting.

Dr Edwards from the School of Psychology has just secured an Emerging Researcher First Grant, valued at $233,607, to see if scent-detection dogs can accurately identify lung cancer, using breath and saliva samples.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in New Zealand, mainly because of the high cost of current lung cancer screening methods, which results in late detection.

Dr Edwards says several studies have demonstrated scent-detection dogs’ ability to accurately identify cancer, but few studies have involved methods that can be used in a clinical setting.

“An operationally-viable detection system for lung cancer would have significant health and economic benefits in New Zealand and internationally,” he says. Improvements in accuracy and speed of diagnosis could result in increased detection rates and reduced mortality for people with lung cancer.

Before joining the University of Waikato, Dr Edwards worked for a humanitarian organisation in Tanzania investigating the accuracy of tuberculosis-detection by giant African pouched rats. Drawing on that experience, he’s established a scent-detection research facility at the university and designed and built an automated canine scent-detection apparatus which will be used for his research.

HRC chief executive Professor Kath McPherson says the contribution that animals can make to human health and wellbeing has been long known, but their role in detecting ill health is a more recent development.

“Evidence shows there are specific odour profiles associated with lung cancer, so there’s a chance this research might identify a valuable tool for earlier detection of the disease, or help inform the development of machine-based sensor technology. We think that’s worth a deeper look,” she says.