Little Rock Dogs being trained to sniff out cancer - KATV - Breaking News, Weather and Razorback Sports

Little Rock Dogs being trained to sniff out cancer

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LITTLE ROCK (KATV) Local search and rescue dogs are moving into the clinical realm, helping doctors detect cancer. The dogs are moving laterally. Instead of being given a scent to find at a natural disaster, they're sniffing for cancer at a UAMS lab.

Scientists have proven that there is a chemical difference between normal and cancerous tissues, so it is not surprising that some dogs can be trained to recognize these differences.

In 2008, a box of puppies was dropped off at a Little Rock Animal Shelter. Donna Waugh says it was fate; she was looking for a new search and rescue partner. "I went over and saw John D. It was like a sappy love story. The moment I saw him, he ran towards me, I ran towards him and that was all she wrote."

At 6 weeks old, she started training John D. He went on his first search at four months old. "He had a find at that point in time which is almost unheard of."

Since then, he has done land recovery, water recovery and live finds. John D helped in the search efforts after the Joplin tornado and the Nashville floods.

His success rate and eagerness to please got a local doctor's attention and the question was asked to Donna, "You think there is any chance that maybe a dog could be trained to find a human cancer?"

He was taken into a lab covered with healthy urine samples and one ovarian cancer sample. "John D takes his paw, lifts it up and goes, "wham" right on top of a sample. As John D is looking at us and breaking out with the biggest of smiles, the researcher says the dogs paw it on the malignant sample. She said he proved he can detect human cancer from a urine sample."

The study was picked up and Frankie, an abandoned mutt turned search and rescue dog, joined the team. Professor of Geriatrics, Arny Ferrando is his owner. "I may have saved him, but I think he saved me to be honest with you. Hopefully he will save others in the future."

They are now working with thyroid cancer urine, blood and saliva samples. Ferrando adds, "The problem is Thyroid cancer is very hard to diagnose. You have a very low percentage of diagnoses and it takes a lot of discomfort to get there."

The next step is to get an idea for the dogs predictability, figuring out what the lowest detection they can scent. Ferrando questions, "Is it 500 cells, is it 1,000 cells, is it 5,000 cells because each cell has basically a size and when you add it all up, it adds up to a nodule size."

Fernando believe the dog will find it long before medicine will. "Instead of this being high anxiety for months and some pain for months and maybe surgery, it is over within a week."

Dr. Don Bodenner was skeptical when the dogs were brought in. "I have been pleasantly surprised that the dogs have been incredibly accurate. That they've been able to detect the Thyroid cancer and ignore the non cancer samples of urine with a real high degree of accuracy. Right now they are over 90-percent sensitive and over 90 percent specific and that is better than virtually any test you can do in medicine that is astounding really."

He now worries about the acceptance in the medical field. "There is going to be a lot of opposition but we always say the data is what the data is."

John D and Frankie are having fun, going to work with their owners and finding cancer for the big pay out at the end… treats and love. Donna says, "Our hope is that this will give dogs from shelters another avenue. When we rescue them, they will rescue people."

Donna concludes, "If we can bring them into the labs and have them finding cancers, earlier detection is the difference between you survive or it's a much tougher battle."

The doctors say there is no conceptual reason why the dogs couldn't do this with any cancer.

The dogs make it look easy, the hard part is getting funding. That is what stands between the dogs being able to do this on a wide scale bases. Donna's vision is to expand the study with more shelter dogs.

You can follow Katherina Yancy on Twitter.