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UCL Culture Blog


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The dogs that work to detect cancer

By Jack Ashby, on 22 November 2017

The Grant Museum’s current exhibition – The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The Boring Beasts that Changed the World ­­- explores the mundane creatures in our everyday lives. Here on the blog, we will be delving into some of the stories featured in the exhibition with the UCL researchers who helped put it together.

Guest post by Katrina Holland (UCL Anthropology)

It’s 8.45am at a business park in rural Buckinghamshire, UK: my primary field site. A car pulls up and Kiwi jumps out, rushing into the workplace where she spends 3 days each week. Striding into the office, Kiwi wags her tail and greets her colleagues by pressing her wet nose into each of their trousers. Shortly after arriving, Kiwi is escorted by her trainer Sam to a grassy paddock where the pair stretch their legs. For Kiwi, this means darting across the field with her nose to the ground and choosing places to do her “business”. Meanwhile, armed with poop bags, Sam walks several laps of the paddock keeping a watchful eye on Kiwi. On their return to the office, Kiwi curls up on a cushion underneath Sam’s desk and dozes for an hour, before Sam calls her into the training room next door. Here Kiwi works, sniffing urine samples for up to 45 minutes per day as she learns to detect the odour of prostate cancer in urine.

One of the bio-detection dogs searches the the samples.

One of the bio-detection dogs searches the the samples.

My research centres around the training and use of dogs to detect odours of human diseases including cancer. I suggest that this work illustrates a unique mode of incorporating animals into medical research that is distinct from the traditional “lab animal” scenario. Therefore, it raises interesting questions about human-animal relationships and the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

This means of using animals in scientific research builds on numerous anecdotal stories of dogs alerting their owners to their cancer prior to their clinical diagnosis. In these stories, the dogs have been said to persistently sniff at specific areas of their owner’s body. One likely explanation for this is that cancer causes changes at a cellular level and these changes are reflected in the volatile organic compounds excreted in biological substances such as urine, sweat and breath.

Human noses are incapable of smelling the complex pattern of chemicals that indicate human disease, but with around 300 million olfactory receptors (humans have just 5 million) dogs are excellent candidates for this work. During training over several months, dogs are taught to identify the odour of cancerous urine samples. They learn to sit when they find a sample containing cancerous odour and to ignore control samples. One of the goals of those involved in this research is to identify biomarkers of disease that will assist in the development of “electronic nose” sensors. Thus, this area of research presents a significant opportunity for dogs to help us understand more about cancer and other diseases, in addition to building knowledge about dogs’ olfactory capabilities.

The focus of my research lies in asking questions about the novelty of using dogs in this way in scientific research. Some of the most obvious differences about the animals in this context, compared to animals used as models in experimental research, are illustrated in the husbandry practices.

It’s a Dog’s Life: When they’re not working, the dogs at Medical Detection Dogs hang out in the office

It’s a Dog’s Life: When they’re not working, the dogs at Medical Detection Dogs hang out in the office

Unlike experimental research that often employs animals as models for studying disease, the dogs enrolled in training and research studies in the detection of cancer are not constrained under the same conditions of captivity. Whilst “at work”, they are not kennelled but instead free to roam the office, curling up for naps under the desks of their human co-workers. In the evenings and weekends the dogs live akin to pets in the homes of foster families. I hope to unpack what this novel case of animals in science reveals about shifting attitudes and responsibilities towards animals in science, as well as the place of dogs in Western society more broadly.

Furthermore, I hope to bring to light the challenges and possibilities that emerge when researchers work with animals as active participants in the process, as my case study exemplifies, rather than merely on them as passive research tools.

Dogs like Kiwi are considered “working animals”, assisting humans in research surrounding cancer and other human diseases. The dogs follow a work schedule comparable to their human co-workers: they come in to work 9-4 several days per week and spend evenings and weekends in the homes of their foster families. Sometimes they even get to join their foster families on holidays. Thus, their subjectivity is multiple as they are simultaneously both “worker” and “pet”.

My research explores this particular mode of human-animal work through an anthropological lens, asking questions such as: “How do human-dog relationships shape how practices of scientific research are ‘done’?”; “How are these nonhumans co-producers of knowledge that is not only about them (i.e. their olfactory capabilities) but with them?” and, “What might a ‘good’ job for a dog look like?”

Katrina Holland is a final year PhD student in Anthropology at University College London, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

The Museum of Ordinary Animals runs until 22nd December. A number of events accompany the exhibition: through discussions, a late opening, a comedy night and offsite events discover how boring beasts shape our relationship with the natural world. Full details are on the exhibition’s website.

Dogs logoWith acknowledgment and thanks to the humans and dogs at Medical Detection Dogs who welcomed me into their worlds.

Medical Detection Dogs receives no government funding for the work the charity does and relies entirely on the generosity of donations from trusts and the public.

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