June 2, 2009—Some dogs can smell odors given off by humans with bladder cancer and diabetes, researchers say. In some cases, the canines warn of oncoming attacks.
© 2009 National Geographic (AP)
Paul Jackson and his son James walk their collie Tinker on the riverbank overlooking Durham Cathedral just outside London.
Paul has type-2 diabetes. His body cannot process insulin. As a result he's in constant danger of collapsing if his blood sugar levels fall beyond a certain point.
His family noticed that whenever he was about to have an attack, Tinker would get agitated.
SOUNDBITE (English) Paul Jackson, Diabetic: "It was his behavior around me when I was having a hypoglycemic attack. The way he would lick my face, or cry gently while I was sitting down, or bark even. And then we noticed that this behaviour was happening while I was having a hypoglycemic attack so we just put two and two together."
This led to Tinker, now aged six, becoming trained as a qualified hypo-alert dog - and he has a smart red jacket to advertise the point.
Now he accompanies Paul everywhere and warns him when he needs to boost his sugar levels, allowing Paul to venture out more often.
Tinker's story prompted the organization Cancer and Bio-Detection Dogs to investigate whether dogs really can detect early signs of a hypoglycemic attack.
Kimberley Cox is a dog trainer at the centre who suffers from diabetes. She's training a golden retriever called Rory.
When Kimberley has a hypoglycemic attack, she captures her body scent in cotton wool and bottles it.
Sitting with Rory in a room at the center, she simulates an attack by opening a bottle.
Rory immediately leaps onto her and licks her face. He then fetches her insulin kit, so she can check her sugar levels. Having achieved his task, Rory is rewarded with a food treat.
SOUNDBITE (English) Kimberley Cox, Dog Trainer and Diabetic: "I've taught him to recognize the odor, and the odor signals to him a big reward, so he knows to come up to me and recognize that odor."
The center also trains dogs to sniff out bladder cancer, following evidence that suggests certain types of cancer can be detected from chemicals found in the sufferer's urine.
Eight urine samples are placed on a carousel. Only one of them is cancerous.
Jake, a springer spaniel, can smell the difference. When he passes the cancerous sample, he sits down and sniffs wildly. His trainer rewards him with food.
SOUNDBITE (English) Rob Harris, Dog trainer: "Dogs have a highly-developed sense of smell. Their nose is in use every day. We just use that part of their nose to help us identify the odor of cancer."
Claire Guest from Cancer and Bio-Detection Dogs hopes further research will lead to new breakthroughs.
SOUNDBITE (English) Claire Guest, Chief Executive, Cancer and Bio-Detection Dogs:
"Now that we know that dogs are able to detect human disease by its odor, and that different diseases have different odors, the potential is just incredible to help individuals with life-threatening conditions but also to have new ways of looking at diagnosis of life-threatening diseases such as cancer."
Its a hope that others can benefit from dogs the way Paul Jackson has, and live a fuller life.