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Helping Dogs ‘Sniff Out’ Cancer – OU Unveils new Life-Changing Device

publication date: Jul 11, 2014
author/source: The Open University

A prototype of new technology to help specially trained dogs ‘sniff out’ the tell-tale signs of cancer in biological samples has been unveiled by The Open University (OU) at the 2014 Royal Society Summer Exhibition.

Researchers, headed up by Dr. Clara Mancini, at the Animal Computer Interaction (ACI) Lab at the OU in Milton Keynes, have worked with the charity Medical Detection Dogs to design the device which helps dogs to communicate whether cancer cells are present in biological samples. This process makes use of dogs’ incredibly sensitive sense of smell which is considerably keener than a human’s, and capable of detecting traces of volatile compounds given off by cancer cells.

Dogs detecting cancer usually do so by using a device that consists of a metal pad installed on top of a sample tube which the dog sniffs. If cancer cells are present, the dog then indicates this to its handler, perhaps by sitting. The ACI Lab has developed this device by embedding a special pressure pad to sense the level of pressure the dog exerts whilst sniffing. The level of pressure the dog exerts is recorded by a computer that is attached to the device, which in turn can indicate the level of confidence the dog has that cancer cells are present. Over time this data can be analysed to take into account a particular dog’s personality (i.e. whether it is more eager or more nervous affecting how strongly it touches the pad). The device is being tested on a range of cancers, including prostate cancer, currently a major killer of men in the UK. Researchers hope it could provide a more accurate early screening service to replace the current, notoriously unreliable, test for prostate cancer.

Dr Mancini, Head of the Animal Computer Interaction Lab at The Open University, said:

“Our work with Medical Detection Dogs offers a new, potentially life-saving method of improving cancer detection at an early stage without the need for invasive tests. If this prototype is successful, we could see this device in use within the next three years.”

The OU’s ACI team runs the world’s first systematic research programme to develop ‘user-centred’ technology for dogs and other animals. The team has also worked with the charity Dogs for the Disabled to develop prototype buttons which enable dogs to operate doors, lights or household appliances more easily by using their noses or paws. The team believes that these buttons not only make it easier for dogs to assist humans, they could also dramatically reduce the time needed to train assistance dogs as they can train with the set of buttons which can then be installed in the home, minimising the amount of relearning the dog has to do when it goes to a new home.

The work of Dr Mancini and colleagues at the ACI Lab will be on display at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition ‘Technology for Dogs’ exhibit which is presented by the OU in collaboration with University of Lincoln, Medical Detection Dogs and Dogs for the Disabled. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to watch dogs using the prototype technologies and find out more about new devices currently in progress such as a new diabetes alarm, also developed in partnership with Medical Detection Dogs. Visitors will also be able to attempt to perform tasks wearing special ‘doggy-vision’ goggles and boxing gloves imitating paws helping them better understand the challenges faced by working dogs.

The OU will also be exhibiting its work on the Rosetta space craft on the ‘Catch a Comet’ exhibit alongside Imperial College London, University College London and The University of Kent. Visitors to the stand will be able to discover what comets are made of via an interactive 3D comet sculpture and figure out what happens to a comet's tail as it zooms past the Sun. The Royal Society’s annual Summer Science Exhibitionopens to the public on Tuesday 1 July 2014.

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