The nose knows

Claire Pesterfield, with her labrador Magic, who lets her know when her blood sugar levels are changing

Tails were thumping with delight when Roche Pharma UK launched their official Charity of the Year: Medical Detection Dogs. This British charity is dedicated to training dogs in the detection and recognition of human disease by odor.

At the kick-off event held at Roche Pharma UK offices in Welwyn Garden City, employees had the opportunity to meet some of the lifesaving dogs and learn more about their work.

During the special Town Hall for UK employees, Medical Detection Dogs CEO Claire Guest said that Roche employees’ support during the year would be invaluable.

“We currently have 48 dogs working in partnerships that support individuals with a variety of conditions. But we have close to another 50 people who want a dog to help them,” she said. Claire described her personal experiences with breast cancer, revealing how Daisy, a trained cancer detection dog, alerted her to the presence of the disease in her body. Without Daisy’s persistent “knocking,” Claire says her cancer would likely not have been detected until much later. One physician told Claire that Daisy’s actions helped improve her prognosis.

Also attending the event was Magic, a Medical Alert Assistance Dog for Claire Pesterfield, who has had type 1 diabetes for 30 years. She explained how Magic helps her every day.

Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall meet with the charity at St. James’s Palace

“If I don’t take my medication or my blood sugar levels are changing, Magic will jump up at me,” Ms. Pesterfield told Roche employees. “If I ignore him, he will keep doing it. He’s probably alerted me 300 to 400 times and the majority of times, he’s right.”

It costs nearly 10,000 British pounds (about 15,000 Swiss francs) to fully train a dog, she added. Roche employees have already raised more than 3000 British pounds (about 4500 Swiss francs). Activities planned for the year include a quiz night, a book event, a static bike challenge, and more.

How Roche is helping

The funds raised by Roche will be used to expand the training of medical detection dogs to make more available to patients who desperately need their help.

“We have a waiting list of more than three years,” Claire said. “Some of the people on the list are young children with very brittle (difficult to manage) type 1 diabetes.”

Most of the dogs selected for the much-needed medical detection role are from shelters or have failed training as guide dogs for the blind. “A successful guide dog for the blind has to be very visually focused, constantly looking at the world around them,” Claire told Roche. “If the dog is too focused on the smells around them, they won’t become good guide dogs. But they have the potential to be just what we need.”

We currently have a waiting list of more than three years, including children with brittle diabetes.
Claire Guest

About 80 percent of dogs accepted as candidates succeed as medical detection dogs. For cancer detection, “high drive” gun dog breeds (spaniels, retrievers, and setters) who work intensely with their noses make good candidates. For other types of medical detection, any breed (or a mixed breed) with a good nose and a desire to bond closely with their owner has the potential to be a successful candidate.

Training involves teaching the dog to associate an odor with a certain disease or biochemical change that causes a change in the person’s odor.

“For cancer detection dogs, training is a bit tricky because you can’t collect urine and breath samples the way you can to train dogs for people with diabetes,” Claire observes. “We really don’t know what cancer smells like to a dog, but we know that the longer they train, the better they get. For example, Daisy is about 93 percent accurate for bladder cancer.”

Unlike sight and hearing, the sense of smell apparently doesn’t diminish as a dog ages, so a medical detection dog can truly be a companion and helper for life. Scientists realize they still have much more to learn about a dog’s remarkable sense of smell.

“What we do know is that dogs have 300 million sensory receptors in their nose and can have detection rates as strong as 1 part per trillion,” Claire said. “The dogs are making detections at very low levels.”

Tags: Access to healthcare, Sustainability, Society