Man's best friend and potent medical ally
The fundamental principle of the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative® is that we open every door and turn over every stone in the search for a cure. As it turns out, one of the stones to turn over is close to home. Dogs can smell cancer.
In measuring MRD (minimal residual disease) in myeloma patients, we were thrilled with a sensitivity level of one in one million using both next-generation flow (NGF) and next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology! We can really pick up a very low level of residual myeloma in the bone marrow. However, dogs’ sense of smell is much more sensitive, able to detect cancer at the incredibly low level of one in a trillion cells! Could dogs detect very, very low levels of active myeloma? While we don’t yet know conclusively, the answer is quite possibly yes.
First clue of dogs’ cancer-detecting skills
Evidence that dogs might be able to detect cancer occurred in 1989. A woman’s pet Labrador kept sniffing a lump on her leg so persistently that she went to the doctor for a check-up. The worrisome lesion was a melanoma cancer. This episode has led to several studies since then, all confirming that dogs can be trained to detect and diagnose cancer of different types at an early stage with remarkable accuracy – in the 90% range or better. Myeloma has not been a part of any trials so far, but it is likely that a “sniffer” trial including myeloma could start soon in the UK.
Is this a reasonable idea or just an interesting distraction? Well, it turns out the science of smell is truly amazing. Dogs, especially German and Australian Shepherds, Lab mixes, and Beagles, are excellent sniffers! I also know from personal experience that Cocker Spaniels (as well as pigs) are excellent at finding truffles many feet below the ground. Dogs can smell a drop of blood in an Olympic-size swimming pool.
If you really want to go for the world’s record, grizzly bears are said to be able to smell food (an animal carcass, for example) from as much as 20 miles away. But a grizzly bear cancer detection center does NOT seem like a workable plan.
High level of receptors
The exact mechanisms enabling dogs (and other animals) to have such sensitivity to smell are still being investigated. Theories include detection of individual molecular shapes (one out of a trillion) by the high level of receptors in a dog’s nostril, or even some type of quantum vibrations. And researchers are attempting to determine exactly what dogs are smelling, possibly the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released by cancer cells.
Although machines may ultimately be able to detect such VOCs and to measure exact levels of the chemicals, dogs are a much more easily available, and provide an undeniably easier, cheaper, and friendlier option. Let’s look forward to a “myeloma sniffer clinic” to tell us if patents are in a deep remission! An added category for the response criteria: DG (dog negative).
Cheaper version of the iWatch?
In the MRD detection world we are always looking for the bottom of the iceberg — no more myeloma. Well, in the dog world, the ability to detect cancer is just the tip of the iceberg. Dogs can do many things to help us humans. As service dogs, they can emotionally stabilize patients (especially children) undergoing cancer treatment, as well as those suffering from severe PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). They can also warn of imminent changes in medical status, such as low blood sugar or possible seizure – perhaps a cheaper version of the Apple iWatch. A recent report shows how treating man’s best friends when the pets themselves get cancer can also guide human treatments. This is certainly much better than animal research experiments.
So, let’s not ignore what animals can do to improve the mental and physical health of humans. Our much-loved pets are truly amazing. I promise to share any updates about a multiple myeloma “sniffer clinic.”
Dr. Brian G.M. Durie serves as Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation and serves on its Scientific Advisory Board. Additionally, he is Chairman of the IMF's International Myeloma Working Group, a consortium of nearly 200 myeloma experts from around the world. Dr. Durie also leads the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative®.