April 21, 2015

Dogs Detect Prostate Cancer By Smelling Urine

My prostate cancer diagnosis came over 20 years ago, but not like this.

As reported in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Urology, two specially trained female German shepherds – formerly bomb-sniffing dogs – detected the presence of prostate cancer with remarkable accuracy simply by smelling men’s urine.

The study is particularly significant because the current diagnostic process – screening the blood for the presence for the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) – leads to many false positives, and subjects healthy men to unnecessary stress and additional tests.

Researchers from the Humanitas Clinical and Research Center in Milan, Italy, collected urine samples from 362 men at different stages of prostate cancer, and from 540 healthy controls.

Zoe and Liu
The two German shepherds bomb sniffers – Zoe and Liu – were retrained to detect the specific volatile organic compounds in urine associated with prostate cancer.

Once their training was completed, Zoe and Liu were presented with batch after batch of urine samples from the prostate cancer patients, placed at random among among samples from the control group.

One dog correctly identified all of the prostate cancer urine samples and misidentified only seven of the non-prostate cancer samples, or 1.3%.

The second dog correctly identified 98.6% of the prostate cancer urine samples and misidentified 13 of the non-prostate cancer samples, or 3.6%

Dr. Gianluigi Taverna, chief of the prostatic diseases unit at the Humanitas Research Hospital, summarized the importance of his organization’s work:
This study gives us a standardized method of diagnosis that is reproducible, low cost and non-invasive. Using dogs to recognize prostate cancer might help reduce the number of unnecessary biopsies and better pinpoint patients at high risk for the disease.

Supporting the British Study
The Italian findings corroborated results from earlier tests by another group, the British charity Medical Detection Dogs. This organization’s sniffing canines identified bladder and prostate cancers with 93% reliability.

Here’s one of those dogs, having a whiff:

According to Claire Guest, the organization’s chief executive, the standard PSA test incorrectly identifies cancer in about 75% of all men who have their blood screened for the antigen. The standard tests are not just inaccurate; they’re costly, too: “Over the years, millions of pounds of NHS [National Health Service] funding has been poured into the traditional test methods, and yet there has been little improvement in their reliability,” she said.

Wrongly diagnosed men eventually learn they’re cancer-free only after the stress and cost of more tests. Guest continued:  
The detection dogs provide an alternative solution that yields consistently accurate results. If our detection dogs were a machine, there would be huge demand for them. Dogs can pick up a scent in a dilution of one to a thousand parts. Their superior smelling power is well known.

According to the Harvard Med School’s “Prostate Knowledge,” the healthcare implications of dogs’ olfactory sharpness isn’t new: "In the first reported case, published in The Lancet in 1989, a Border Collie/Doberman Pinscher mix relentlessly sniffed and nipped at a single mole on her owner’s leg (but not other moles). The one that attracted the dog’s attention turned out to be malignant."

These dogs-smelling-cancer stories underscore what penicillin discoverer Alexander Fleming learned in 1928: amazing solutions often come from the most unlikely places.

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