In a time when dogs have been trained to sniff out drugs and land mines, scientists are still finding other ways to use canines' superior sense of smell. One of these ways is training them to sniff out terminal diseases in places like Africa, where people generally do not receive convenient access to healthcare. By using dogs in this method, doctors could expand the medical field and save countless lives.
The nose of a dog has lots of potential for disease detection and control. A dog's nose is non-invasive and powerful. According to an article published in Wired.com, "it is able to detect substances at concentrations of one part per trillion—a single drop of liquid in 20 Olympic-size swimming pools." A dog can be easily trained to detect disease due to neophilia “which means [dogs] are attracted to new and interesting odors,” states Claire Guest, director of Medical Detection Dogs, an organization that focuses on canine biodetection research. A trained dog can be placed at certain outposts to protect against the spread of diseases. Also, the dogs can help accelerate the development of much more advanced technology.
The use of this technology could be beneficial for limiting the spread of dangerous diseases such as malaria. The World Health Organization, in its latest malaria report, states that “decades-long progress in fighting the disease has stalled and is in danger of reversing.” This disease kills half a million people annually, mostly children, even though the disease is treatable. Plus, the disease has evolved to allow it to spread to more hosts. Research conducted by James Logan, Head of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found that malaria-causing Plasmodium can make infected humans smell tastier to mosquitos. People affected by the disease were found to emit a variety of volatile compounds that are a potent potion for attracting mosquitoes.
There is evidence that trained dogs can be used to prevent the spread of disease. Guest offers one piece of evidence from her own life when she was saved in 2009. Her own dog, Daisy, nudged her repeatedly in the chest, detecting a lump that was later found out to be breast cancer. Daisy was not trained, nor was she a medical dog, and yet, she saved Claire's life. It has also been shown that dogs are very accurate and reliably consistent with their sense of smell. In double-blind tests, two canines could correctly pick out the scent of children infected with malaria parasites 70 percent of the time. Although a dog's sense of smell may not be perfect, they can still help develop the next generation of scent-detecting technology. As Guest said, “We can say to the dog, 'here's 10 cancers, which smells the strongest, and then feed that data to the AI. If machines can understand what odor is, that will be a much more powerful tool for us in the future.”
To some, the concept of disease-detecting canines is a very effective option. Dogs have the potential to cut down the spread of lethal diseases such as malaria. Dogs have also been shown to work extremely well in test runs, and the data collected from the tests can be used to develop the next generation of technology to reduce death from the diseases. When thinking about eliminating the spread of diseases, a man's best friend is not usually what comes to mind; however, that does not mean they cannot prevent outbreaks of disease.
You too can help advance health research. The UW-Madison All of Us Research campaign aims to gather health data from more than one million people in order to advance precision medicine research. To find out how you can participate, click here.