Using dogs to sniff out lung cancer

25 September 2017

Dr Tim Edwards and his dog Tui.
Dr Tim Edwards and his dog Tui.

A University of Waikato researcher is looking at how dogs can be used for lung cancer screening.

The Waikato Medical Research Foundation has given Dr Tim Edwards $30,000 to kick off the first part of the research. He and his team are training pet dogs, including his own dog Tui, and will be collecting breath and saliva samples for sniffing soon.

Dr Edwards says there is a real need for a cheaper and less intrusive way of mass screening for lung cancer as often by the time people are referred for testing it is too late. “The disease has a high mortality rate, so being able to make even a small difference would help save lives.”

The research is using the only known fully automated scent detection mechanism for dogs. The animals put their muzzle in the device, breaking a beam of light as they sniff the sample. If the dog holds its nose inside for a set period, it is considered a positive indication. The dog gets a food treat.

Dr Edwards says one of the first things people ask him is what are the dogs smelling. “If we could answer that question and list a few chemicals or something, that would make people happier about the science. In one sense, we are all curious about that, but in another it doesn’t matter. They’re probably actually smelling a whole bouquet of compounds, and each dog’s definition is likely to be a bit different.”

He is using a range of pet dogs. “It’s not about the breed, as all dogs have ridiculously sensitive olfaction. It’s about their temperament and willingness to work,” he says.

There’s currently work being done on e-noses and electronic detection, and Dr Edwards says one day people may be able to breathe into a machine and have diseases diagnosed, but that’s not close to reality at the moment. “Right now we do have dogs, and they have some potential according to existing research – but we need to clarify how accurate and reliable they can be.”

Dr Edwards is a lecturer in Psychology specialising in animal behaviour. He has also worked overseas using giant pouched rats to sniff out tuberculosis.

His research partners are Dr Catherina Chang (Respiratory & Sleep Physician, Waikato District Health Board), Dr Clare Browne (Lecturer, School of Science, University of Waikato), and Associate Professor Michael Jameson (Assistant Dean, Waikato Clinical Campus, University of Auckland).

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