Amazing dogs can help detect disease

We already know what an amazing sense of smell dogs have and how it protects us on a daily basis.  Dogs are used extensively to sniff out explosives, illegal drugs and other contraband.

Thanks to the pioneering work of Medical Detection Dogs, a charity set up in 2008 by Dr Claire Guest and of which I am a trustee, we also know that dogs can detect the odour of human disease.   Our research has demonstrated that they can do this with incredible accuracy.  The charity’s dogs routinely score around 95 per cent accuracy rates and can find the odour in dilutions of up to a part per trillion – the equivalent of a drop of blood in an Olympic sized swimming pool.

The charity’s dogs routinely score around 95 per cent accuracy rates and can find the odour in dilutions of up to a part per trillion – the equivalent of a drop of blood in an Olympic sized swimming pool.

Compare that to the PSA test for prostate cancer, which has a 75 per cent false positive rate, and it is clear how great the potential for canine disease detection is.  The three in four men who have further invasive tests after a false positive PSA test might be spared that experience as well as saving the NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Our dogs are not only trained to detect cancer, but we are researching their ability to detect other diseases as well, including Parkinson’s disease and Malaria, with huge potential to revolutionise the detection of disease.

The training each of our dogs undergoes before they are able to participate in any of our research projects is done to a rigorous standard but it is also fun for the dogs.   Using their noses comes naturally to them and they enjoy the experience.  We pride ourselves on the care our dogs receive and have the highest welfare standards.  All the dogs live in private homes with families and are never kept in kennels.  I foster a bio Detection dog called Jobi who is very much part of the family and like the others goes to work each day at our training and research centre where the samples, not the people, are brought for them to work on.

One of the key aims of the charity is the development of non-invasive tests which can be used alongside existing diagnostic tests to help detect cancer and other diseases at an early stage, thereby greatly improving the chance that the disease will be successfully treated and consequently increasing survival rates.

I know from personal experience how important it is to have an early diagnosis of cancer. Doctors found that I had breast cancer in July 2009 – a year to 18 months after it first developed and the tumour was confined to my right breast. 

I know from personal experience how important it is to have an early diagnosis of cancer. Doctors found that I had breast cancer in July 2009 – a year to 18 months after it first developed and the tumour was confined to my right breast.

It had not spread and I was successfully treated. I underwent surgery in 2010 and had months of radiotherapy and I am now in remission. But many other people, with a range of different cases from prostate cancer to colorectal cancer, are not so lucky and their prognosis is far worse.

We are engaged in a number of long-term projects to gather sufficient data to demonstrate conclusively that dogs have a role to play in the detection of human diseases.  We are doing so in collaboration with a number of partners in the NHS and the Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is positive about the potential of our work if we can gather a sufficient body of evidence that dog detectors can be accurate and effective.

The outcomes of our research work to date shows that this is eminently possible and that there is great potential for canine odour detection to play a key role in the diagnosis of human disease if we can expand the number of collaborations and fund further research.   We are extremely grateful to the supporters who have made our work to date possible and we would be delighted to hear from anyone who would be interested in working with or supporting us in the future.

Betsy Duncan Smith

Betsy Duncan Smith

Betsy Duncan Smith, who is married to the former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, is a trustee of the charity Medical Detection Dogs.
https://www.medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk/project/the-honourable-mrs-elizabeth-duncan-smith/
Betsy Duncan Smith

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