In fact, they’re so unique that scientists are looking to use what we’ve learned from our furry companions to create new biosensor technology. See, dog’s noses aren’t only good for sniffing other dog’s tails at the park; they offer information.
According to ABC, a person’s breath, urine, and skin smell slightly different just before a seizure, drop in blood sugar, or in the early stages of cancer: all of which can be picked up by dogs. Scientists want to use this sensory information in non-invasive early disease detection technology, specifically in treating malaria.
The goal is to stop malaria from entering areas that are completely or nearly malaria-free to prevent it from further spreading, says public health entomologist Steven Lindsay from Durham University.
“And how do you detect a malaria-infected person in 1,000 healthy people? I give you: the dog,” says Lindsay.
In a test, trained dogs detected the smell of malaria parasites in children’s socks correctly 70% of the time. The goal is to turn this sensory skill into a chemical detector that can be taken into the field; potentially detecting malaria-infected people in large crowds.
The hope is that the biosensor technology can also be used in early detection of other diseases.
Tim Edwards, a behavioral psychologist at Waikato University, began training dogs to detect lung cancer after realizing the disease is often caught too late to be treated.
“There are things that may be present in the breath of healthy people, but in people with lung cancer, the proportions are wrong,” says Edwards, allowing dogs to catch lung cancer early in a non-invasive manner.
The benefit of a machine-based technological version of dog’s noses is: reliability. Researchers can calibrate an electronic sensor to certain levels, while animals are always learning from trial and error.
The problem is that little is actually known about how dogs are able to detect different human diseases.
“We know dogs have 60 times more receptors in their olfactory system, and the area in the brain that processes scents is around 40 times larger,” says Noushin Nasiri, a materials engineer at Macquarie University. “But the reality is that we don’t know exactly how they can detect biomarkers at very low concentrations.”
Meetings such as the 235th ECS Meeting offer researchers a space to come together and discuss their work within the electrochemical and solid state field. Join them this spring for your chance to experience it all first hand.