Osa, an athletic 62-pound German shepherd with a long fluffy tail and a fondness for red bandannas, seems an unlikely superhero.
She chews on the couch when she’s bored and isn’t above making a scene to get attention. On a recent day when her foster mother and trainer Annemarie DeAngelo stepped outside their New Jersey home while chatting with a visitor, Osa bounded up and barked for attention; when that failed, she leaped onto the patio table, stuck her snout in DeAngelo’s face, and began whining.
“You are unbelievable,” DeAngelo growled before cracking a smile.
But if Osa wants to play the diva, she’s entitled. After all, how many six-year-old pooches do you know who have mastered the art of sniffing out cancerous tumors and are involved in a research project that has the potential to revolutionize oncology?
Despite the remarkable success of immunotherapy, CRISPR gene editing, and other recent breakthrough treatments, oncologists’ inability to detect some cancers in their early stages remains one of the field’s most intractable—and fatal—shortcomings. One disheartening case in point: of the estimated 21,750 women in the United States expected to be diagnosed this year with ovarian cancer, a disease that is treatable when found early, almost 14,000 are likely to die from it.
Osa might soon help improve those odds. She is part of an ambitious effort launched five years ago at the University of Pennsylvania that aims to reverse engineer one of the most powerful scent detection machines ever discovered—the canine nose. Osa is able to distinguish between blood samples taken from cancer patients and their healthy peers simply by sniffing them. In fact, she’s one of eight cancer-detection dogs trained by DeAngelo and her colleagues at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a nonprofit X-Men academy of sorts that breeds and trains “detection dogs.” The ultimate goal is to develop an “electronic sniffer” that can approximate the cancer-sniffing superpowers of Osa and her pals. Such a machine could then be deployed to thousands of doctors’ offices and medical diagnostic facilities around the nation.
Annemarie DeAngelo with her star pupil, Osa
And cancer is only one possible target. This type of system could lead to similar devices for different health issues, such as bacterial infections, diabetes, and epilepsy. Some dog trainers have even begun setting their sights on COVID-19. “It’s basically the exact same approach,” says Cynthia Otto, the founding director of the center.
It all starts with that wondrous invention of nature: the canine nose. Our own schnoz doesn’t even come close. The average human is equipped with five million olfactory receptors, tiny proteins capable of detecting individual odor molecules. These receptors are clustered in a small area in the back of the human nasal cavity, meaning a scent must waft in and up the nostrils. In dogs, the internal surface area devoted to smell extends from the nostrils to the back of the throat and comprises an estimated 300 million olfactory receptors, 60 times more than humans.
For Osa, here with DeAngelo and Cynthia Otto, cancer research is not all work.
Dogs also devote considerably more neural real estate to processing and interpreting these signals than humans do. Compared with a paltry 5 percent for humans, 35 percent of a dog’s brain is dedicated to smelling. Add it all up, and the dog nose is up to a million times more sensitive than the human nose.
DeAngelo and Otto were moved to tears when the dogs learned to detect traces of ovarian cancer on the scent wheel.
“Sniffing is how dogs see the world,” explains Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “That’s how they pick up information about who has been there, are they happy, are they sad, is the female in heat, are they feeling well or not. Their nose leads the way—dogs sniff first and ask questions later.”
A DOG’S NOSE IS UP TO A MILLION TIMES MORE SENSITIVE THAN A HUMAN NOSE.
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