As a dog owner who knows how deeply my dog has improved my life, this assignment was one I lobbied hard for. In researching this story, the reports of untrained dogs somehow finding a way to alert their undiagnosed owners of cancer didn’t surprise me at all. Any dog lover knows these amazing creatures are incredibly sensitive to their owner’s physical and emotional well-being.
My own dog, Charles Barkley, is prone to licking my mom’s arthritic knees when they flare up.
What did surprise me was exactly how challenging it is for leading researchers to scientifically re-create what dogs do naturally. At University of Pennsylvania, scientists are just now fully understanding why dogs’ sense of smell is so powerful. There are several biological reasons dealing with the shape of a dog’s nose, the number of scent receptors, the size of the olfactory region of the brain, and even the way in which dogs inhale and exhale. More than likely it is all of these factors which allow dogs to smell 10,000 to 100,000 times more acutely than humans.
The challenge now is to try and re-create a system in the lab that can detect scents just as effectively. Then the hope is that a team of scientists will be able to pinpoint exactly what it is in cancer cells that the dog is able to detect.
Interestingly, canines will be used throughout the process. As scientists begin to isolate various compounds found in human cancer patients, they will send isolated mixtures back to the dogs at Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center to essentially ask them, “Is this it?” No. “How about this?”
Dr. Cynthia Otto, founder of the Working Dog Center, suspects it could take another five years for the team at U of Penn to build an electronic nose modeled after that of dogs, so it is unlikely with early cancer detection that we will get to a point where we don’t need canine assistance any time soon.
In fact, with all of the medical research that shows the therapeutic benefits of owning a dog—from speeding up recovery time, to helping cure depression and regulating blood pressure—it’s clear dogs can help humans in every phase of illness, from early detection all the way through recovery. Clearly, dogs have an even bigger role in our lives than we originally thought.
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