What is it Lassie?

Whoever thought that the greatest accuracy in cancer diagnostics would come with four legs and a tail? NPR’s Health Blog reports on the latest study of canines who can detect cancer in breath, fluid, and tissue specimens from patients – with 97% accuracy.

This all suggests, the authors write, that “common scents may exist among various cancer types.” Their study appears in the journal Gut, an affiliate of the British Medical Journal.

The dog’s “scent judgment,” as the study authors call it, was not affected by whether patients were smokers or not, and the dog wasn’t confused by other conditions, like inflammation or infection.

Moreover, the dog was equally good at sniffing out samples from patients with early-stage cancers as with advanced malignancies.

The real value, though, will be in discovering just what traces the dogs are smelling. Lassie comes to the rescue, yet again.

Some scientists are trying to find out using chromatography and mass spectroscopy, which can detect trace amounts of chemicals in a sample. (A dog’s nose can reportedly discriminate at the parts-per-trillion level.) They hope to one day build an electronic nose as good as a dog’s.

The answer to what dogs are smelling could shake up more than cancer diagnosis. It would probably shed light on what cancer is and how best to attack it at the molecular level.

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