Cancer-detecting dogs sniff for clinical partners

Pet therapy at Brookwood Baptist

VESTAVIA HILLS, AL (WBRC) - A non-profit foundation is focused on training dogs to recognize the smell of cancer needs samples of human blood, breath and urine.

The Sprout and Penny Canine Foundation's "Sniff 4 Life" program needs a doctor or medical provider to partner with for the next stage of their fight against cancer.

"A lot of people don't go in for screenings when the cancer could be caught and cured," said Laurie Malone, Ph.D of Exercise Science and Researcher for the 501c3. "This [scent detection] could provide a mechanism that is inexpensive, non-invasive and serve people who might not go in for screenings otherwise."

Early detection for cancer and many other medical conditions can be crucial for saving lives, but knowing what the cause of a patient's problems can be difficult, sometimes painful and often costly. Professional dog trainer Cindy Roberts knows the toll of a late diagnosis.

"They diagnosed [my mother] with lung cancer on a Tuesday and she passed away the following Monday," Roberts tells WBRC.

In her work as a certified Canine Nose Work Instructor, Roberts learned of a Bio-Dog Trainer program offered by California-based In Situ Foundation. It felt like a calling.

"I called Laurie and said 'Hey, Laurie, I think there's a program we might be interested in.' Before I knew it, we were on an airplane to California to learn how to train dogs to detect cancer," said Roberts.

The pair were the among the first in the country to receive such formal training, though medical scent detection programs have also been developed in other countries.

"Several researchers around the globe have proven dogs can detect cancer from non-invasive samples," said Roberts. "Our goal is to contribute to the scientific research and pursue the findings in a sort-of unique fashion."

The foundation recently moved into a facility on Montgomery Highway in Vestavia Hills where they are currently working with nine dogs, some of whom will eventually become a team capable of alerting handlers to the smell of cancer. It can take up to a year and a half to train each dog by progressing from a hunt for treats to searching for a novel odor that is similar to the organic compounds emitted by tumors into human waste products.

Using a dog's powerful nose may eventually help under-served (or under-insured) communities access early detection methods that do not require complex, costly or painful biopsies. Instead, the dogs would individually smell samples of waste products and alert a trainer observing by video feed if something's not right. If multiple dogs alert on the same sample, a clinician may want to follow-up with the patient who gave the sample.

For more information on the Sniff 4 Life program, click here.

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