Sniffing out ovarian cancer

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects
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PHILADELPHIA, Penn. - Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in the U.S. The silent killer is often diagnosed too late and will kill 14,000 this year. That's where specially trained dogs could come in.

Ohlin, McBaine, and Tsunami are all dogs with different personalities, but they share one special purpose.

"Lifesavers, these dogs are saving lives," said Cindy Otto, DVM, PhD, Director, Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

Otto is leading research at Penn Vet Working Dog Center, teaching canines to sniff out ovarian cancer—a disease with no standard early detection test.

"It is a silent killer and so many women are not diagnosed until it's too late," Otto said.

Each cancer has its own odor. Otto says a dog's keen sense of smell could detect it.

"They are about 1,000 to 10,000 times better than we are at detecting any kind of odors," Otto explained.

So far the dogs have been introduced to the smell of the cancer tissue. Researchers place three bowls on the ground and one of bowls has the odor.  The dogs are trained to sit when they find it.

The ultimate goal is to use the dogs to help build a machine to detect the odor or biomarker, and create a blood test to catch ovarian cancer early.

"They are training the machines so that the machines can then do millions of samples at a much lower cost, so that we don't have any woman who can't get this kind of screening, which is so important," Otto said.

The five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is 44 percent. When found early it jumps to 92 percent.

All of the dogs at the center come from strong family lines with histories of hunting ability or detection work. These breeds have long noses and are used in the research because they have the largest surface area of olfactory receptors.

The program at Penn Vet Working Dog Center is supported by donation.

Additional Information:

When it comes to the sense of smell, dogs surpass the capacity of humans.  Humans sniff out odors using about 350 different olfactory receptors, but canines use more than 1,000.  They can even smell the volatile organic compounds or odorants altered in the earliest stages of ovarian cancer.  Researchers at Penn Vet Working Dog Center the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the School of Arts & Sciences, the Division of Gynecological Oncology in the Perelman School of Medicine and the Monell Chemical Senses Center are working together to develop a new system of early cancer screening.  "The idea behind the funded project is that, by combining information from dog studies, analytical chemistry, and nano sensor studies, we can make more rapid progress toward the goal of diagnosing ovarian and other cancers from their volatile signature," A.T. Charlie Johnson, a professor of physics and astronomy, was quoted as saying.  Researchers hope to further develop their patented nanotube device to detect and spot odorants and other chemical compounds using single strands of DNA.  When a strand of DNA is attached to the carbon nanotube, it takes on a complex and specific shape, forming small, pocket-like structures that interact with molecules in the air.  Johnson says that when they change the base sequence of the DNA, they get a device that responds differently to odors in the air.  "In a sense, we're mimicking how we think your nose works, "Johnson said.  Other potential applications of the device could be to monitor air and water for contaminants, or mimic service dog jobs like tracking down drugs. 

For the study, Johnson's team, the Working Dog Center, and an analytical chemist at Monell will analyze tissue and blood samples from ovarian cancer patients. The researchers will look for the chemical signature of the odorants from the patients.  Together, the nano sensor, chemical analysis, and the noses of real dogs will help researchers refine their picture of the compound found in early stage ovarian cancer.   (Source:

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