College researching if dogs can sniff out cancer

PITTSBURGH — The research is still in the early stages, but scientists are looking at whether dogs can sniff out cancer in people. The Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, or LECOM, is helping in the research.

Heather Junqueira's research started five years ago when she lost her dad to cancer.

"I had worked in the service dog industry," she said. "So, I started doing research to see different things that dogs could do."

The beagles at her facility in Florida test breath samples and are trained to detect the smell of lung, breast and general cancers. The samples are in masks that go into metal containers. Three groups of dogs smell each one. If the dog sits, that means he smells cancer. All three groups have to hit on the mask for it to be considered positive.


Junqueira runs a business conducting these tests, but now she's teamed up with LECOM to study the testing more and expand on it. There's a campus of LECOM at Seton Hill in Greensburg, but the campus working with Junqueira is in Bradenton, Florida, where the Pirates play spring ball. Channel 11 headed out to Greensburg to talk about the research happening at its sister college.

"The idea is we start using samples from animals, dogs and, actually, rats as well, to attempt to detect, through their scent these cell types, these cancers, early on so that we can find them faster than we do clinically," said Dr. Kevin Thomas of LECOM in Greensburg.

At LECOM's Bradenton campus, Dr. Robert Biringer is working with medical students to break down samples from patients, which are then sent to Junqueira's dogs to see where the smell is coming from.

"We're starting out with a problem of, like, a needle in a haystack," Biringer said.  "We want to break it down into a needle in a small bird's nest."

All the researchers stress that right now, the results from dog testing aren't a diagnosis or a replacement for other tests, such as mammograms.

"Our goal is to work together with traditional methods, not to replace them," Junqueira said. "Our end goal is to figure out what our dogs are smelling, not to actually use the dogs for a screening method."

The ultimate goal is to develop ways to detect cancer earlier and increase a person's chances of beating it.

"Dogs service us in so many ways," Thomas told Channel 11. "They protect us, they hunt with us, they're our eyes when we can't see, they help us when we can no longer move and they gather things.  It kind of would be a natural thought that they would help us with this very difficult task of diagnosing cancers and treatments."

This research is still  new, so researchers are still working on collecting masks in the study, but some earlier research about that same group of dogs alerting to cancers in blood, is set to be published this summer.