The team at Penn Vet's Working Dog Center hopes to detect ovarian cancer. Right now, there is no reliable test for it, so it is typically found late when it is more difficult to treat.
"Where'd it go? Get your toy, Olin," the trainer says, as the chcolate lab moves around, sniffs a paint can, and sits down.
To 1-year-old Olin, this is just a game.
But to the team at Penn Vet's Working Dog center, this experiment could save lives.
Olin is one of the carefully-bred detection dogs being trained to recognize the *smell of ovarian cancer - a silent killer often detected too late.
Dr. Janos Tanyi, a Penn Medicine oncologist, says, "Most of the cases are diagnosed at advanced stages like stage 3 and stage 4 when the 5-year survival rate is under 40%."
In the pilot study, a tiny tissue sample is taken out of the freezer , and put into one of the 6 cans on a big wheel.
The dog is then assigned to sniff out the sample -
Dr. Cynthia Otto, leader of the study, says, "They will smell an odor and they'll sit."
When they find the right one, they're rewarded with a favorite play towel.
The Penn trainers are using a variety of cancer samples, and doing the test again and again, to make sure the dog is only responding to ovarian cancer.
Dr. Otto explains, "We want to know that every time we spin that wheel, they're sitting at that spot where the cancer is, not any other spot."
Over time, the trainers will try to narrow down and identify the odors the dogs pick up.
They'll continue the process in the lab until they find the signature scent of ovarian cancer.
Dr. Tanyi says it may take 4 years to get that, but patients are still happy to volunteer tumor samples to help.
"They are really excited and they want to be part of it," he says.
The idea is eventually to find a way to detect that signature scent through a blood sample.
Doctor Otto says if this works for ovarian cancer, it could work for other diseases as well.