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Dogs to sniff out cancer?

21st August 2008

Experts in the United States have found that a common form of skin cancer could be diagnosed by the distinctive chemical "scent" it gives off.

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Researchers at Philadelphia's Monell Centre found that the air directly above basal cell carcinomas and was different from similar samples from healthy skin, paving the way for a possibly cheap and painless test for the cancer.

Meanwhile, a team of dogs in the UK is being used to sniff out bladder tumours from urine samples, pointing to increased scientific interest in the "smell" of cancer.

The Monell Centre's Michelle Gallagher said the findings might some day allow doctors to screen for and diagnose skin cancers at very early stages.

The skin releases volatile organic compounds in its normal state, many of which do have a scent.

Monell Center scientists used a technology called gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to identify the precise chemical composition of volatile organic compounds which are released by the human skin in its normal state.

In air samples taken from 22 patients, 11 with and 11 without basal cell carcinomas, the equipment revealed that the patients with cancer had markedly different concentrations of certain chemicals.

Gallagher told the American Chemical Society's annual conference that this meant that a profile of the cancer could be built up.

The team now plans to try to construct profiles of other types of skin cancer, including the much more dangerous malignant melanoma.

Dermatology researcher Carolyn Willis from Amersham Hospital in Buckinghamshire is meanwhile trying to develop a cancer test using the same principles - but with dogs, whose noses and olfactory processing brain regions are one of the most sensitive instruments available in smell differentiation.

The Amersham dogs have been trained to detect subtle changes in the odour of urine which could indicate bladder cancer, and Willis is hoping to detect prostate and skin cancers the same way.

In confirmation of reported anecdotal evidence in which dogs' reactions to their owner's odour leads them to seek medical help and a cancer diagnosis, Willis said the dogs had great potential as a screening tool, and were a non-invasive and simple way of detecting disease.

Other projects worldwide have included checking the composition of exhaled breath for distinctive chemicals given out by lung tumours.

 

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