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German shepherd Levi successfully sniffing out bowel cancer cells in Otago University trials

New Zealand-first research to investigate using dogs as a diagnostic tool to sniff out bowel cancer is underway.

The University of Otago and K9 Medical Detection NZ are working together to detect one of New Zealand’s most commonly diagnosed cancers using a simple urine test.

Now, after less than a year of training, German shepherd Levi is successfully sniffing out bowel cancer cells in saline.

According to the Bowel Cancer Foundation Trust, New Zealand can expect more than 3000 people to be diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, with about 1200 dying from it. It says 90 per cent of people can be saved if it's detected early enough.

Medical detection dogs, such as Levi, are trained to identify volatile organic compounds which are released from tumours present in medical conditions such as cancer.

When it comes to detecting cancer, there is growing evidence that elevated levels of volatile organic compounds are associated with disease growth. Research has shown that dogs can be trained to detect these odours and identify the “signature smell” associated with cancer.

K9 Medical Detection NZ founder and director Pauline Blomfield says the results from the first stage are “highly exciting”.

“Despite the disruption caused throughout the year by the Covid-19 pandemic, the data recorded from K9 Levi's odour work conclusively proves this working-line dog can detect various odour concentration levels of bowel cancer in saline,” she says.

“This success confirms our training methodologies and gives confidence for year two of this trial to repeat the process with the bowel cancer samples in urine.”

Sniffer dogs to be trialled in New Zealand to detect bowel cancer

Levi has completed the initial scent imprinting training, during which time his trainer, Courtney Moore, pairs the positive cancer sample with reward using positive reinforcement and specific training methodology.

Levi is still in training but is detecting positive cancer samples 92.8 per cent of the time, and ignoring samples that did not contact cancer 99.8 per cent of the time.

Otago’s Biostatistics Centre director and associate professor Robin Turner says the training results are “very promising”.

The next step is validation; an experimental design in which the trainer also does not know whether the test samples are positive or negative for cancer. This ensures she is not influencing the results.

“These validation studies are what are required to show the test has high diagnostic accuracy.”

Levi will soon be joined in his cancer-detection training by 16-month-old German shepherd Weta.