When dogs go to work, their office doesn't have cubicles. At the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in West Philadelphia, the main area is padded with a bright blue carpet, where dogs can run and learn. Outside, an obstacle course allows them to further hone their skills. Dogs at the center train all day for future jobs in search and rescue, to sniff out bombs - and several dogs are training to work in the medical field.
"Currently we're focusing on two different things, cancer detection, specifically ovarian cancer, and diabetic alert dogs," explains Dr. Cindy Otto, who directs the center. "Those are very different jobs," she added.
Diabetic alert dogs work directly with people, and alert them when their blood sugar is too high or too low. The cancer detection dogs work in a laboratory, where they screen samples for the odor associated with ovarian cancer.
Dr. Cindy Otto is a trained veterinarian, and spent many years caring for search and rescue dogs. In the wake of the Sept.11th attacks, she took care of the four-legged first responders working at the World Trade Center site. The time spent there had Otto refocus her career, and devote her efforts exclusively to training working dogs, and researching their abilities. Otto says medical detection dogs have big potential in saving lives.
Does cancer have a smell?
In the center's lab, five clear containers are lined up on a low-hanging shelf on the wall. A young, excited Springer Spaniel named McBaine is brought in by his handlers. His mission: find the one sample that contains cancer cells. McBaine is too excited at first, and just flits from one sample to the next. The handler calms him down, they start over. McBaine is more focused now. He sniffs every container, and eventually sits calmly next to the sample with the cancer cells.
Back in her office, Dr. Otto explains that the work the dogs are doing could eventually lead to an inexpensive way to screen broadly for ovarian cancer. If dogs can reliably detect ovarian cancer with their noses, it could help scientists and chemists filter out what exactly they are smelling. Eventually, it wouldn't be dogs smelling samples, exlains Dr. Otto. "Our goal is not to have the dog smelling the hundreds of samples, because that would be very expensive and we wouldn't be able to do the number of samples. Our goal is to have the dogs help to design a very efficient and very sensitive laboratory-based test with machines running it."
Otto explains that the basis of the machine test would be an odor, with an artificial nose or "e-nose" sniffing out the cancer.
Otto says she loves the dogs involved in the program and is proud of them, their abilities, and their work.
"The capability of what dogs bring to us is endless," she said. "Part of is it that they can communicate things to us that we just don't understand, but enrich our lives, but this is a tangible way that they can communicate, and save lives."