Can dogs really smell cancer?

Sunday, April 2, 2006
In her Northfield neighborhood, Marlene Creech is known as the cocker spaniel lady.

Cocker spaniels are featured in a painting above her fireplace. Cocker spaniel figurines are displayed throughout the living room. Cocker spaniel photographs hang on a wall in the hallway.

In one of the photographs, Creech and her husband, Omer, are surrounded by four of the dogs. The photo is from 2003, one of the last taken before Omer's cancer reclaimed his body.

Doctors assured the Creeches that Omer was cured after his initial bout with colon cancer in 1994, but the cancer returned in 2002. Marlene Creech doesn't believe it ever really went away, that current technology wasn't able to detect the disease's presence in her husband.

"The system let us down big time," said Creech. "We went to all the follow-up appointments, we had all the tests you're supposed to have, and it didn't matter."

After losing her faith in medical technology, Creech found somewhere else to place it: her dogs.

About 10 years ago, dog trainer Marilyn Olson Neville watched an "Unsolved Mysteries" episode about dogs detecting cancer in humans. At that time, the idea was more like an urban myth than a theory worthy of scientific investigation. But Neville never forgot her fascination with the concept or the stories of dogs saving their owners by drawing attention to malignant moles or cancer-ridden breasts.

So when a local nurse contacted Neville last summer about training dogs for search and rescue, the Zalma, Mo., woman had a better idea.

Neville's timing was uncanny. About that same time, a little-known cancer research group in California called the Pine Street Foundation was conducting a study of dogs' ability to smell cancer on a human's breath.

The results of the study, published last month in Integrative Cancer Therapies, found that the five dogs used to sniff breath samples of 55 lung cancer patients, 31 breast cancer patients and 83 healthy people had an average 90 percent accuracy rate in detecting which breath samples belonged to those patients with cancer.

In media reports that spread across the country, Pine Street Foundation director Nicholas Broffman explained that cancer cells emit different metabolic waste products than normal cells. With dogs' powerful sense of smell -- which is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than humans' -- canines are able to detect a difference between healthy cells and cancerous cells, even in a disease's earliest stages, according to Broffman.

But many top researchers and physicians across the country scoffed at the study's off-the-charts results.

Even the Pine Street Foundation said more studies were needed. Enter the Cancer Scent Detection Group of Southeast Missouri.

As dog trainer Marilyn Neville considered the possibility of a local research project in the summer of 2005, Cape Girardeau music teacher Marlene Creech was watching her 78-year-old husband Omer slip further into cancer's grip.

Neville, who works for the Association for Community Education of Animal Behavior, knew the Creeches through their cocker spaniels. The dogs had undergone behavior training with Neville, and the Creeches were among the 24 former students Neville first approached about forming a cancer research group.

Marlene and Omer Creech, along with 11 other students, volunteered their animals to be part of the group.

By the fall of 2005, Omer was in a local nursing home. He died on Halloween. Marlene Creech asked that memorials be made in his name to ACE for the Cancer Scent Detection Group. Donations from Omer's memorial helped pay for printing of the group's initial proposals.

With volunteer canines in place, Neville went in search of support from the local medical community. She sent copies of the group's proposal to local doctors and hospital administrators. She also pitched the project to Tara Lang, a local animal behavior specialist.

Lang agreed to help monitor the dogs' behavior when -- and if -- the actual testing begins.

"It is definitely something that has a lot of merit," said Lang, a veterinary technician of 11 years and independent consultant. "If dogs can detect the difference between cocaine and marijuana, if they detect oncoming seizures, there's no reason they can't detect these types of changes as well."

Through Lang, Neville met Dr. Larry Myers, an associate professor of anatomy, physiology and pharmacology at Auburn University's college of veterinary medicine in Auburn, Ala.

Myers has been involved in similar research efforts around the country, including studies of canines detecting prostate, lung and bladder cancer. He is currently working on a lung cancer detection study at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. He has also worked on this type of project at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

Myers said he has volunteered his help in designing the Southeast Missouri-based experiment, though his experience with other projects tells him making such a study happen will be difficult.

"I'm not saying it's impossible, I'm saying it's a lot of hard work and it won't happen over night," said Myers. "It's chancy research either way, and there's just no guarantee we'll be able to do this."

Right now, Myers says the biggest obstacle is obtaining samples. He estimates that some 108,000 samples will be necessary for a relevant study into ovarian cancer. To get those samples, the local group needs the help of medical labs and cancer patients. And Myers is used to dealing with skepticism from the medical community at large.

"It's good to be skeptical. I'm not asking anyone to buy into this right now. It's a research project," said Myers. "But there's a good chance dogs can do this. I'm not asking people to accept that now, because the evidence doesn't exist. But it could."

Right now, the project's leash is taut. There's nowhere else to go, says Neville, until she receives some kind of response from the local medical community.

Neville is the first to admit she's only a dog trainer, not a researcher and certainly not a medical professional. For now, the project has few parameters. She's counting on Myers and the other medical professionals involved to establish the study's guidelines. Neville knows they need dogs younger than age 5 to participate. She knows the local project will focus on ovarian cancer. She knows they need the local hospitals' help to procure 108,000 samples -- with potentially multiple samples coming from a single patient -- of either pap smears or urine. She knows with a volunteer-based study, it may take as long as two years to complete the project.

"And I know this: it will be hard work and it will take a long time," said Neville. "But I also know we have the drive to do it. We all have some close connection to cancer."

Neville carries her connection with her most days. Occasionally, she pulls the two photographs out when someone in front of her at the grocery store is buying tobacco. She points out her father's missing jaw bone, the mass of cancer consuming his lower face in the photographs.

"That's what cancer looks like inside your body, without the white pus," she explains matter-of-factly.

Neville's father died of cancer in 2000.

In January, Neville gave local doctors copies of her proposal. The proposal explains the need for an academic medical institution to sponsor the study, and grant money to fund it. But first, the group needs cooperation from the local hospitals, says Neville.

She's contacted board members of both Southeast Missouri Hospital and Saint Francis Medical Center and has spoken with various administrators and oncologists, but she has been unable to secure a meeting between the local medical community and Dr. Myers.

At Southeast, vice president Karen Hendrickson said before the hospital could consider the proposal, an oncologist on the medical staff there would need to review the research done and the study proposed, and make a recommendation to the institutional review committee. That committee would then decide whether the hospital could participate.

Saint Francis Medical Center representatives declined to comment on the proposed study.

Neville's next step is going before both hospitals' boards of directors with information about the local project.

"For now, I'm not sure what will be involved, but I know the rewards will be great," she said.

She keeps in touch with the 12 dog owners who volunteered their pets for the program, including Marlene Creech.

Creech is approaching what would have been her 42nd wedding anniversary this month. Her three cocker spaniels, Moonbeam, Midnight and Dustee, remind her of Omer. But they also give Creech hope that she may be able to play a role in saving someone else's husband.

"The system let us down, but maybe there's another way," said Creech. "If this could prevent someone from losing a spouse, that's invaluable. I wish something like this could have helped Omer, but everything in it's time, I guess."


335-6611, extension 128

How the studies work

Past canine scent cancer projects, like the one conducted this year by the Pine Street Foundation, teach dogs to recognize the difference in smell between cancerous cells and benign cells -- similar to the way dogs recognize the difference between narcotics like cocaine and marijuana.

The dogs are then trained to communicate when they detect the cancerous smells by pointing or barking. Studies have been done on lung cancer, skin cancer, breast cancer and bladder cancer over the past 20 years, using breath and urine samples. In some cases, researchers say canines were able to pinpoint where the cancer was in a person's body.

The project's goals

Southeast Missouri's Cancer Scent Detection Group has five objectives:

* Prove that dogs can detect (ovarian cancer) in its earliest stage of development

* Prove that clients/patients of our medical institutions will embrace the use of dogs to detect cancer

* Determine that the use of dogs to detect cancer can be financially advantageous to patients, medical institutions and insurance institutions

* Prove that the use of dogs to detect cancer is a safe and reliable tool

* Demonstrate the benefits when dogs are used to give another opinion with the standard tests already in use.