Beagles Diagnosing Cancer ‘Could Work with Mesothelioma’
Specially trained beagles could one day detect mesothelioma by scent, according to the lead researcher of a recent study detailing the dog breed’s stunning accuracy with lung cancer.
Dr. Thomas Quinn, clinical professor at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, believes the dogs could be equally effective with pleural mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure.
“Absolutely, this could work with mesothelioma. There is no reason why it wouldn’t,” Quinn told The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com. “That is another cancer with strong potential for this to work well.”
The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association published the study in its July 2019 edition, documenting the almost flawless ability of three beagles to identify cancerous blood serum in the midst of numerous control samples.
They identified the lung cancer samples with 97.5% specificity and 96.7% sensitivity.
Olfactory Ability Is Key
The beagle breed was used for the study because of its unusually acute olfactory ability.
According to the study, a typical dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 times stronger than that of humans, and beagles are at the top of the canine olfactory list.
The study was conducted at the College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Bradenton, Florida, campus in collaboration with BIOScentDX, a canine training and research firm in nearby Myakka City.
Three beagles were trained over an eight-week period to positively identify cancerous samples with a clicker-reward method.
Four control samples and one cancerous blood sample were placed in five wall-mounted canisters around a small room, allowing the beagles to investigate each one.
The dogs were rewarded if they sat in front of the correct canister while ignoring the others.
“This is a promising method of early detection for cancer and an exciting form of research that literally could change the paradigm of how we test for the disease,” Quinn said. “The goal is to advance canine scent detection from the realm of research into evidence-based medicine.”
From Blood Serum to Exhaled Breath
While the recently published study involved blood serum and lung cancer, the research team is nearing completion of a second and third study measuring the efficacy of a breath test involving facemasks worn by patients.
Lung cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer are now being tested with the breath condensate samples.
Testing could be as simple as buying a surgical mask at the drug store, wearing it for three to five minutes, and mailing it to the laboratory where the beagles can determine if the scent of lung cancer is present.
“The results are coming back just as good now as with the serum samples, with a 97% to 99% accuracy,” Quinn said. “We’re really encouraged.”
Current screening methods for lung cancer include chest X-rays and CT scans, which comes with radiation health risks and high false-negative and false-positive rates.
“What we’re doing here [with the beagles] is less expensive, more effective, more accurate and doesn’t expose a patient to radiation,” Quinn said. “Medical science today can cure even some of the worst cancers — if caught in the very early stages. Early detection is the major thing we need to do.”
Mesothelioma Testing Could Start Soon
No testing for mesothelioma has begun, but Quinn believes it will happen in the near future as researchers expand their list of cancers.
Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive cancer most often caused by occupational exposure to asbestos. It can take anywhere from 10 to 50 years after exposure before it is diagnosed.
Early symptoms often mirror those of less serious health issues, often delaying a definitive diagnosis until the cancer is in its later stages and much more difficult to treat.
An early identification with a simple breath test could be a major breakthrough for mesothelioma treatment. A diagnosis now often requires a combination of imaging scans, blood tests, and invasive biopsies, and still can be elusive.
A breath test could be valuable for those in the high-risk category.
“One of our biggest customers now is a fire department in California, because of their high risk for lung cancer, and mesothelioma,” Quinn said. “Firemen, plumbers, union workers who are around all the toxic chemicals, those are the ones we should be screening.”
More Research Is Needed
Future studies will involve determining specific cancer biomarkers the dogs are sensing with the samples.
Researchers believe that by identifying and isolating the biomarkers, they eventually can develop a low-cost, over-the-counter screening method — much like a pregnancy test — for individuals to use at home and provide a means of early detection.
“We’re barely scratching the surface of this new and exciting research,” Quinn said. “We have more questions than answers right now. This is research. It is still experimental, but it is moving forward rapidly.”