Hey! Sniffer dogs for cancer! They're back.
The dogs are back! I love this story. The media love this story and the public do too. Dogs that can sniff out cancer. This time it's Japanese dogs and bowel cancer but it's been skin cancer, bladder cancer and also prostate cancer, where I made my own little contribution to the romance of it all, some years ago. I landed up in a BBC news studio with a golden retriever called Bliss. She was rightly edgy about sitting on a swively office chair but was quite happy for me to waggle her ears and refer to her as a novel technology.
Romance? A funny word I know but I spent a great deal of time thinking about our sentimental attachment to dogs as man's best friend. They save us from sightlessness, drugs, explosives and avalanches - and now cancer! I had to construct comments for the media on behalf of The Prostate Cancer Charity when the sniffer dogs story came up in 2004 (and had done previously too). The comments had to reflect our priority - the story was about men who may have prostate cancer, not about dogs. The dogs were a 'technology' and had to be put to one side in the discussion, without antagonising dog owners and coming over as a moronic cancer campaigner.
From a veterinary science point of view I gathered it was no surprise that a dog's nose would be sensitive enough to search out some cancers. So hypothetically it was likely, not merely possible. However, imagining what a clinic of dog screeners might look like was less illuminating. How long they would take to be trained, how long would their working lives be, how much workload keeps them interested but doesn't overwhelm them, and what would be acceptable rates of error?
As we tend to ascribe human characterstics to dogs, what about off days? Combining an animal health and welfare point of view with a prospective cancer patient's expectations, what dip in quality of detection might be acceptable, allowing for mood or illness in the canine staff?
I once saw a passive detecting dog at work on TV. He sat down right in front of a man whose pockets, it transpired, were stuffed with weed. The dog sat still, frowned hard at him, and stared up into has face. Silently. I doubt anyone would appreciate this form of communicating bad news about a cancer diagnosis, but it wouldn't be like that. I don't mean the dog would put its chin, and then its paw in your lap and sigh, either. The dog might sniff a sample of something, out of sight of the patient who provided it.
But actually it wouldn't be like that either.
In the interest of animal health and welfare, and health service delivery, the end result will be more prosaic than a Canine-led Oncology Service. There will be two next steps in science and engineering - creating an 'artificial' nose, regulated like every other medical device, for accuracy, consistency, safety and maintenance reasons, plus some purely biological work on what exactly it is that the dog is detecting.
Dull, but true. Though how nice to see the dogs coming round again. It's been a while. I wish we'd get on to the next bit though, with some novel screening technology based on dog biology and a bit less on sentiment.