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Health: New Study Underway Training Dogs To Detect Deadly Form Of Cancer

By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - The smell of cancer, that only a dog can detect. There's groundbreaking new research starting here in Philadelphia that could help save lives.  It's an CBS 3 Eyewitness News exclusive.  Only Health Reporter Stephanie Stahl was there as the new study got underway.

The dog McBaine is rewarded when he shows he's found a certain scent. It's the first day of a new study at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, that could change the future of cancer detection. Cindy Otto, the Director of the center says, "I know our dogs are life savers."

Previous studies have shown dogs can detect medical conditions like a seizure before it happens. Now a select group of canines at the Working Dog Center is being trained to detect ovarian cancer.

Marta Drexler donated tissue for the project, she has advanced ovarian cancer.  "I feel very large gratitude that I can be a little tiny part of it," Marta said.

Ovarian cancer is called the silent killer, because there are no symptoms and no effective screening. It's usually found late, after it spreads. The dogs could change that.  "If this works and I know it will, in a couple of years all women could have the chance to have this early diagnostic tool," Marta says.

Cindy Otto says the dogs appear to be able to smell an odor in an ovarian cancer tissue sample that's along a wall. "Cancer cells actually go under changes and they have a change in the way they metabolize nutrients and just different byproducts, those byproducts are then in the tissues," Otto explains.  The byproducts can also be found in things like blood and saliva.  Dogs can smell those cancer byproducts, humans can't.  It's similar to how they can smell for explosive material.

Otto says, "They smell what I like to say in color, so they can look at a room with their nose and pick out all of the pieces. They have a big olfactory center and the part of their brain that processes it is much larger than in humans."

Once they pick up a scent, the dogs are trained to sit to indicate they found something. Annemarie DeAngelo, training director at the center, says the dogs are played with after they indicate, "..and that's what they live for,  they love the hunt we teach them that this is their hunt."  She says it's a big game for these dogs, who are bred for this kind of work.

The research is being done in conjunction with Penn Medicine, Penn Physics Department and the Monell Chemical Senses Center.  Researchers think eventually the dogs will be able to smell early stage ovarian cancer cells in blood samples.  "I'm so happy for all the women who will be saved and it's such a simple thing," Marta says.

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