Sherlock Bones: Dogs could inspire a 'robotic nose' designed to detect prostate cancer

Written on 02/20/2021
Ciarán Mather

Just when you thought dogs couldn't be any more amazing, a group of researchers now believe that they could pave the way in revolutionising the early detection of prostate cancer.

A UK-based charity known as Medical Detection Dogs (MDD) has said that a man's best friend could lead to the development of a special prostate cancer diagnostic method, beyond the blood test method which is currently used by medical experts.

The study involved two good little volunteers named Florin and Midas, a Labrador and a Vizsla respectively, who were trained to detect prostate cancer in urine samples.

It was conducted with the aid of a sponsorship from the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF) and also involved both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University.

Researchers looked at three areas during the study: the dogs' sense of smell, artificial intelligence-assisted chemical analysis, and microbial analysis of urine samples.

They found that the dogs showed 71 per cent sensitivity - the rate at which they correctly identified positive samples.

In addition, the two dogs reached 70-76 per cent specificity for the rate at which they correctly ignored negative samples including those with other diseases, when detecting the most lethal form of prostate cancer.

According to The Irish Cancer Society, prostate cancer affects around 3,300 men per year.

Fortunately, 90 per cent of these cancers can be cured so long as they are detected and treated early.

The MDD hopes that the work can be replicated in a bigger study and eventually result in the production of a 'robotic nose' perhaps in the form of a smartphone app.

Dr. Claire Guest, co-founder and chief scientific officer of the MDD, shared her thoughts on this interesting development: 'What we now need to find out is whether or not the dog's ability to discriminate and detect the very fast-growing, dangerous forms of prostate cancer through this non-invasive and rapid, reliable test could go on to saving millions of lives around the world.'

Jonathan Simons, PCF president and CEO, and study co-author, added that the results 'could now lead to the future development of a more sensitive and specific prostate cancer diagnostic beyond the current PSA test.'

He elaborated that larger scale studies are being planned to develop a 'robotic nose', and may also include the use of a smartphone app of the future.

Dogs are well-known for their sense of smell: it is believed that their sense of smell is somewhere between 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than ours. 

In fact, for every scent receptor a human has, a dog has about 50.

Their brilliant noses have long been used for searching for items, and in the context of Ireland, one Clare woman, Helga Heylen, has trained dogs to sniff and root out Japanese Knotweed, a harmful plant currently in Ireland's ecosystem.

In related news, dogs with dyed blue fur have been spotted in several Russian cities, raising concerns of a possible chemical leak.

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