Dog Noses May Hold the Key to Prostate Cancer Detection

New study could help develop a robotic nose that works like cancer sniffing dogs.


Disease detection dog sniffing for prostate cancer.

(MDD/Neil Pollock)

Dogs have an amazing sense of smell. That’s why they have been used to track and rescue people, find contraband at airports, as well as to sniff out cancer and other diseases.

Now a cross-disciplinary group of scientists used a pair of trained cancer sniffing dogs to detect early prostate cancer. They hope to use this research to develop a new screening tool based on the dog’s sense of smell according to a news release from the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer for men in the US except for skin cancer according to Most cancers or the prostate, if found early enough, are survivable. That’s why early detection is so important.

While dogs have been used to smell prostate cancer for decades, researchers never knew  what elements of scent were being detected or how the animals were processing that information according to the news release. That’s what researchers from the Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Johns Hopkins University, Medical Detection Dogs (MDD) set out to discover.

These researchers combined three approaches, canine olfaction from a team of trained cancer sniffing dogs, artificial intelligence assisted chemical analysis of urine samples and microbial analysis of urine samples from men who had biopsies for suspected prostate cancer.

The dogs, a four-year-old Labrador and a seven-year-old vizsla were trained to smell cancer in urine samples, including the most dangerous one; Gleason 9 prostate cancer. The results showed that the dog’s olfaction was 71 percent effective when detecting prostate cancer from blind samples.

This was the first controlled study where both human researchers and canines were double blind and the results were published in the journal Plos One.

“This study showed that a dog’s nose could hold the key to an urgently needed, more accurate, and non-invasive method of early prostate cancer diagnosis. Specialist-trained cancer smell dogs, Florin and Midas, detected extremely aggressive prostate cancers quickly and accurately from urine samples, even discriminating these against urine from patients that had other diseases of the prostate,” Dr. Claire Guest, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Medical Detection Dogs and lead study author said in the news release.

This additional information could support the PSA and would provide earlier, non-invasive, sensitive detection of clinically aggressive prostate cancers that would most benefit from early diagnosis, simply from a urine sample. This has enormous potential and in time the ability of the dogs’ nose could be translated to an electronic device.”

Florin was flown over to the US, according to the BBC where scientists from MIT are studying her nose in the hopes of building a robotic nose that utilizes the dog’s ability to detect prostate cancer. This device is being planned to eventually be a smartphone app.

“Imagine a day when smartphones can send an alert for potentially being at risk for highly aggressive prostate cancer, years before a doctor notices a rise in PSA levels,” Andreas Mershin a physicist and research scientist from MIT, and a writer of the study told BBC. “Once we have built the machine nose for prostate cancer, it will be completely scalable to other diseases.”

This may be just one sniff for dogs but it is a giant leap for diagnosing diseases in people. It’s true, dogs really are man’s best friends.

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