Sniffer dogs start clinical trials to help breast cancer patients

FRANCE has started clinical trials using trained sniffer dogs to detect breast cancer – with the hope of also being able to carry out similar non-invasive tests to detect lung and prostate cancers at a distance.

Isabelle Fromantin
Isabelle Fromantin

Led by specialist cancer nurse Isabelle Fromantin at the Institut Curie in Paris, the €80,000 trials have been four years in the planning and will be carried out in Limoges after training for the dogs starts in September.

The dogs are keen-nosed Malinois, the same breed as guard the White House. Mrs Fromantin said: “They will do in­tensive training to detect odours related to breast cancer on samples of fabric.

“The trial will be as thorough, as scientific, and as regulated as any other clinical trial. The process could take two or three years.”

A specialist in breast cancer surgery scars, she said her interest “came out of research for my doctoral thesis on the odours produced by wounds left by surgery to remove tumours. Wounds that won’t heal, or that smell can lead to social isolation or even marital breakdown.”

The psychological effects of ugly wounds and, in particular foul-smelling wounds, can be very damaging. She researched the bacteria producing the odours, hoping to find a way to neutralise the smell.

“This work on the specific odours released by chronic wounds led naturally to an interest in the work of dogs trained to detect cancer.

“We’re behind in France - in the US they’re working on how dogs detect prostate cancer in urine samples.”

She contacted dog trainer Jacky Experton, the head of ITDC in Lyon and Limoges, who said: “I’m really eager to get started. I use Malinois because they have great noses, learn fast, and love the work.”

Once trained, the dogs will remain in Limoges working on samples sent from Paris. He added he had trained dogs to find bodies, weapons, explosives, cash and drugs, as well as bedbugs and a virus that attacks vines. “If it has a scent, then a dog can be trained to find it.”

Named Kdog, the trials will use samples taken by wearing a piece of fabric on the breast for a few hours. The dogs sniff each sample jar in a row – if they detect a cancer scent they sit down instead of moving to the next sample.

Mrs Fromantin said: “If the clinical trials are successful and we can get this detection method validated, it could be useful in all sorts of ways. Electronic ways of detecting scents take a long time and are very expensive. In comparison, dogs are very fast, they’re cheap and of course, it’s non-invasive.”

Another advantage is that people could be tested without leaving home – which could be very useful in developing countries.

Made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2015, Mrs Fromantin has lobbied for wound dressings to be reimbursed by the state and for specialist nurses like herself to be professionally recognised.

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