The Open University

Cancer detection dogs

Specially trained dogs who are able to “sniff out” cancer could soon help clinicians to diagnose potentially life-threatening diseases. Researchers at the Animal Computer Interaction (ACI) Lab at the Open University have collaborated with the charity Medical Detection Dogs to design a device to help bio-detection dogs communicate whether cancer cells are present in biological samples. 

This process makes use of dogs’ incredibly sensitive sense of smell, which is much more powerful than a human’s, and capable of detecting traces of volatile compounds given off by cancer cells.

In current practice, these dogs express a positive or negative assessment by demonstrating trained behaviours such as sitting down or staring at the sample. However, any variations in their levels of confidence (e.g. maybe yes, maybe not, maybe), due to varying concentration levels may be expressed by subtleties in their body language, which can be difficult to interpret. The ACI Lab has addressed this by using pressure sensors to measure the level of pressure the dog exerts while sniffing. This is recorded by a computer connected to the device and can indicate the level of confidence the dog has that cancer cells are present. Over time this data can be analysed to take into account a particular dog’s personality (i.e. whether she is more exuberant or more reserved, affecting how she touches the pad). The device is due to be tested on a range of cancers, including prostate cancer, currently a major killer of men in the UK.

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