ERIE, PA – Beagles are capable of identifying lung cancer in humans with near-perfect precision, according to a recent study by the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM) that is receiving international attention.
The research, published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, indicates that three beagles were 97 percent accurate in distinguishing blood serum samples of patients with malignant lung cancer from healthy control samples. The study was conducted by a team from LECOM’s Bradenton, Florida, campus in collaboration with BioScentDX, a canine training and research firm in nearby Myakka City.
Over an eight-week period, three beagles were trained with a clicker-reward method to positively identify cancerous samples. Testers placed four control samples and one cancerous blood serum sample in five wall-mounted canisters positioned at equal intervals around a room before allowing the beagles to investigate each canister. The dogs were rewarded when they correctly found the lung cancer sample – indicated by sitting in front of the appropriate canister – while ignoring the others. Using this method, the beagles were able to correctly identify the cancer samples with a 96.7 percent sensitivity and a 97.5 percent specificity.
Investigators selected the beagle breed because scent hounds are perfectly equipped for a scent-centered study thanks to their natural olfactory capabilities. Dogs’ sense of smell is at least 10,000 times stronger than that of humans; specifically, beagles have 225 million olfactory receptors compared to humans’ 5 million receptors. The study also cites the breed’s size, calm demeanor, ability to be trained and social personality as ideal traits for this type of investigation.
LECOM and BioScentDX are nearing completion on a second study that examines the dogs’ efficacy in detecting breast, lung and colorectal cancer in breath condensate samples collected from patients’ facemasks. Early indications suggest the beagles are just as successful in positively identifying cancer in exhaled breath samples as they are in finding cancer in blood serum samples. Furthermore, early research suggests that dogs have the ability to detect the presence of breast cancer significantly earlier than other proven methods, such as mammograms.
Future studies will expand to include additional canine breeds and other forms of cancer. Researchers will also focus on determining the specific cancer biomarkers dogs are sensing within these samples.
“This canine scent detection research could potentially change the whole paradigm of future early cancer detection,” said Thomas Quinn, D.O., LECOM clinical professor of family and occupational medicine and lead author on this research project. “The objective is to advance canine scent detection of cancer from the realm of research into the sphere of evidence-based, early cancer detection.”
According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women worldwide. Each year more than 200,000 people in the U.S. receive a diagnosis of lung cancer, and 13 percent of all new cancer diagnoses are a form of lung cancer.
Early detection offers individuals the best possible chance of survival. Unfortunately, lung cancer symptoms often do not appear until the later stages of the disease. Current screening methods such as chest X-rays and computed tomographic (CT) imaging come with additional potential health risks, can be expensive and can be inaccessible for the underprivileged or those in rural communities. Additionally, chest X-rays have been known to have a high false-negative rate while CT scans with a computer-aided diagnosis have a high false-positive rate.
Researchers are hopeful that by isolating and identifying the biomarkers the dogs are using to detect cancer they will ultimately be able to develop a safe, low-cost, over-the-counter screening method for individuals to use at home – much like a pregnancy test – that will give patients a means of early detection and, hopefully, improved outcomes when it comes to fighting cancer.