Penn vets train dogs to sniff out ovarian cancer

University of Pennsylvania
A study at Penn Vet is exploring early detection of ovarian cancer by dogs.
Credit: Rikard Larma/Metro

A study being conducted at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Working Dog Center is using dogs’ noses in an attempt to increase early detection of ovarian cancer.

Volatile organic compounds, or odorants, are altered in the earliest stages of ovarian cancer, even before the disease can be detected by current methods. Research has shown trained detection dogs and electronic devices can detect minute quantities of these odorants.

Now, three puppies — two Labradors and a springer spaniel — are being trained to detect these ovarian cancer odorants in the Penn study.

“These odorants remain a relatively untapped source for cancer detection information,” Dr. Cynthia Otto, director of the Working Dog Center and associate professor of critical care at Penn Vet, said in a statement issued by Penn. “By utilizing the acute sense of smell in detection dogs in conjunction with chemical and nanotechnology methods, we hope to develop a new system of screening for ovarian cancer using analysis of odorants to facilitate early detection and help decrease future cancer deaths.”

Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among women in the United States. Ovarian cancer typically is not detected until it has spread to other parts of the body, making a cure far less likely.

The joint study by Penn’s veterinary school, physics and astronomy departments, gynecologic oncology division and Monell Chemical Senses Center is being funded by an $80,000 grant from Kaleidoscope of Hope Foundation.

The initial study will evaluate and compare the ability of canine and other sensors to detect the total odorant signatures that distinguish disease from healthy samples, according to Penn. Future studies will determine the best tissue substrate for evaluation and will measure odor differences among various tumor grades.


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