Dogs Being Trained to Sniff Cancer in Humans
Aired May 29, 2003 - 07:44 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: It's unchartered territory for man's best friend, but at a California clinic dogs are being taught to sniff out cancer. The 15-week program is designed to specially train dogs to detect cancer in humans by smelling their breath.
Michael McCullough is leading the scent-detection project at the Pine Street Medical Center in San Anselmo. He joins us now from there this morning, along with two of his prized puppies-in-training, who we can't see quite yet.
Are they sitting on your lap? Oh, there they are. How sweet. This is Ming and Ling, right?
MICHAEL MCCULLOUGH, PINE STREET MEDICAL CENTER: That's right.
COLLINS: Can you tell us a little bit...
MCCULLOUGH: Good morning, Heidi.
COLLINS: Good morning to you and your puppies there. I'm wondering how you got interested in a project like this.
MCCULLOUGH: Well, we've often been asked the question: Can dogs actually detect cancer? And what we're finding in our study is how accurately can they do it? We're using a rigorously-designed double- blind study to measure how accurately dogs can detect and distinguish between the breath of a person with lung cancer and the breath of a person who does not have cancer.
COLLINS: So, how do they go about doing that?
MCCULLOUGH: Well, it uses a very carefully designed training method, where the dogs are trained to sample using their noses a series of five different samples on the floor of the laboratory room. And they are then trained to give a cue to basically sit down at the breath sample that came from a person with lung cancer.
COLLINS: No, I have to ask...
MCCULLOUGH: And in the beginning, we...
COLLINS: I'm sorry, Michael, we're just looking at some video of that process of the training, and I'm trying to figure out in my mind how you get ahold of a person's breath and then put it into some sort of container for them to later come and smell. How does that work?
MCCULLOUGH: Oh, OK. It's very straightforward. Basically, we use a tube like I'm holding here. And the person who is the research subject would then breathe through the tube, and then this tube is then presented to the dogs, and they then will smell the tube.
COLLINS: How long does it take to train a dog to do such a thing?
MCCULLOUGH: Our estimates are anywhere between 6 to 12 weeks to train the dog, and we're right now in this test actually testing different training designs to see how quickly and how efficiently we can actually complete the training process.
COLLINS: Now, the puppies that you have with you this morning, Ming and Ling, I know they're getting ready to -- or one of them at least is getting ready to start this training. The other one is already in it. But their cousin, Shing Ling (ph), was actually the pioneer of this sort of work. Tell us a little bit about that dog.
MCCULLOUGH: That's right. Yes, Shing Ling (ph) was really our pilot dog, the first dog that began this work with us. And in that part of the project, we were able to determine that she could, 87 percent of the time, reliably distinguish between the breath sample of a person with lung cancer and the person who did not have cancer. So, in this study, which is more rigorously designed, we're actually replicating then that with a team of five dogs.
COLLINS: Well, that's a pretty high percentage, 87 percent. Does that give you encouragement that this is something that could become used more commonly?
MCCULLOUGH: Well, we think that, you know, the concept is very simple. If dogs can detect drugs, if dogs can detect bombs, we feel that they can detect the minute traces of volatile organic chemicals that are given off by lung cancer cells in a person's breath.
And we believe that this project is going in two directions in the future. First is in parts of the world where there isn't a large medical budget we believe that the dogs could be used as kind of a prescreening to help determine which members of the population would most benefit from more expensive high-tech testing. And the second is that we believe that the future of this work is also in the development of a kind of breathalyzer, a detector that will be able to detect those same volatile organic chemicals that are given off by the cancer samples using a device.
COLLINS: All right, well, it is certainly a fascinating project, and early detection, it sounds like, is what your true goal would be here.
Michael McCullough, we appreciate you being with us this morning so much to tell us all about this.
And we do want to remind everybody, just to be careful here, that while the technology may have the potential of early detection, doctors at the American Cancer Society say that they have not seen enough data to support recommending this as an actually method for early detection or prevention of cancer. They just say that more research needs to be done, and of course, you need to consult your doctor on all of this.
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