Medical detection dogs have the go-ahead for the first European Breast Cancer Detection Trial

Throughout each year, the breast cancer charities hold a myriad of events to collect money for research into the disease, for physical and psychological after-care and for raising awareness of the signs and symptoms, leading to earlier diagnoses and better outcomes for patients.

While those with secondary/metastatic/advanced breast cancer tell a very different story – there are many who breathe a huge sigh of relief that the disease was found and treated early. Mammograms are not always the answer, because some cancers go undetected by this test and, for people under the age of 49/50, a mammogram is not offered. What if there was a much simpler way of testing – with no radiation required?

One small charity has just received the go-ahead from the Ethics Committee of the Bucks NHS Trust to conduct the first European “Breast Cancer Detection Trial, using the olfactory powers of dogs.”

The Medical Detection Dogs charity was founded in 2007 and, since then, has been training dogs in the UK – and advising clinics in other parts of Europe, Australia and the USA – to detect prostate, renal and bladder cancer, using urine samples. The success rate is staggering – with prostate cancer, the results achieved show a “93 per cent reliability, compared to the 75 per cent of false positives found by the traditional PSA tests”.

Dr Clare Guest – the founder of the charity – will be the principal investigator of the trial, along with Rob Harris, the Bio-Detection Manager. In the new bio-detection room – paid for by a donation from a private trust – six dogs are being trained. From these six, the best four will be selected to work on the trial.

From a number of minor studies, there is a strong indication that volatiles, emitted by the cancer cells – which are what the dogs detect – may appear on the breath at an early stage in the disease process. Dr. Guest understands well what a diagnosis of breast cancer means to a young person. She became aware of a problem only after her dog “alerted” her to such an extent that she consulted the GP.

Announcing the new study, Dr Guest said:

As someone who has had breast cancer significantly younger than fifty, I am painfully aware that would have been too long for me to wait before being scanned for cancer for the first time. After fifty, women are invited to have a mammogram every three years.

This means that a woman could have breast cancer for two years without ever finding out, by which point the tumour could be well established. The problem is that it is not good for women to be scanned more regularly than that, because of the exposure to radiation.

So, if we succeed in proving that dogs can detect breast cancer on breath samples, younger women – and women, such as myself, who have had breast cancer and need regular checks to ensure the tumour has not returned – could simply breathe into a tube and find out safely and quickly their state of health.

MDD is not only looking for financial donations, so that the £136,000 needed for this trial can be found, but it also needs 500 healthy women, aged between 18 and 30, who are prepared to travel to MDD’s headquarters (outside Milton Keynes) and donate a breath sample for use as a “control”. The usual consent forms will need to be completed and the samples will be purely for the study, with no personal results given.

Patients with confirmed malignancies and non-malignancies, who attend the breast clinic in High Wycombe will be invited to give samples – and the team is hoping for 900-1000 of these on which to work. Giles Cunnick , a consultant breast surgeon, and Alan Makepeace, an oncologist, are supporting the trial and lending their expertise.

Whilst I see no problem in having a dog in every surgery, to enable patients to be tested from age 16 upwards, the real goal of MDD is to “assist scientists to develop E-noses, that can detect the odour of cancer through cheap, quick, non-invasive tests”.

The charity – whose patron is HRH The Duchess of Cornwall and whose ambassador is Lesley Nicol (best known as Mrs Patmore from Downton Abbey) – is going from strength to strength, but it needs financial donations or sponsorship to help with this extremely important Trial. New arms for the carousel, which carries the samples, will cost £510.

If you would like to join Walk the Walk and donate financially towards this Trial (a promised £10,000 from that incredible charity), or if you would like to donate your breath, please contact Medical Detection Dogs on 01296 711218 or go online.

This is just the beginning but, as Dr Guest says: “The results of this trial could revolutionise the way we think about breast cancer”.