Science-- there's something for everyone

Monday, August 29, 2011

Canine cancer detectors

Dog sniffingLung cancer is both common and deadly, especially if it isn’t caught early. Thorsten Walles from Schillerhoehe Hospital and his colleagues decided to see whether dogs could be used to detect lung cancer.

The team presented 500 breath samples (one fifth of which were from lung cancer patients) to a group of trained sniffer dogs. The dogs correctly identified 71 of the lung cancer patients (yielding a false negative score of 29%) and 372 of the healthy volunteers (false positive of only 7%).  Unfortunately, the dogs have been unsuccessful at communicating which specific chemicals they were using to discriminate between healthy and sick people, making it extremely difficult to refine their training, or to design electronic sensors for lung cancer.

If these numbers can be improved, and great care is taken not to confound the results by influencing the dogs in any way (see my prior post about sniffer dogs), this might be a viable screening tool.  Personally, I look forward to receiving a notice from my doctor that I ‘pass the sniff test’.

Sniffer dog training.
Image courtesy of European Lung Foundation.