Life threatening diseases and conditions could soon be treated quicker, thanks to the noses of a group of local dogs.
Medical Detection Dogs (MDD) trains dogs to use their incredible sense of smell to detect specific odours – or what scientists call ‘volatiles’ – related to particular medical conditions.
Already, its trained assistance dogs are giving life-changing support to people who live with serious medical conditions including diabetes and narcolepsy.
The dog can detect the change in odour associated with an impending medical episode, such as a hypoglycaemic attack, and alert the owner before he or she loses consciousness.
The charity has even trained Nano, the World’s first peanut detection dog who represents a breakthrough for people living with deadly nut allegies.
Other dogs have been trained to detect the odour of cancer from urine samples, and this training has formed part of new NHS research, which could see the skills of canines being used to help people worldwide.
Co-founder and chief executive Claire Guest said: “I’m feeling a real sense of interest in the use of volatiles for diagnosis of a whole range of diseases and conditions.
“Every type of disease probably has a different odour so the potential is vast.
“We’re in regular contact now with scientists working on electronic systems to replicate what the dogs do, with electronic ‘noses’ that break compounds down.
“At the moment, they’re quite big, complicated machines that do what a dog’s nose does.
“In the future, people might just blow into a machine and it will tell you what’s wrong with you.
“It’s not pie in the sky. It could be the way forward.”
A new breast cancer study just launched in partnership with Bucks NHS Trust is evidence that the charity has now been embraced by mainstream medicine.
Dr Guest said: “It’s very exciting. All the patients that go through the breast clinics for Bucks NHS Trust will be asked to blow into a tube, and then the anonymised tubes will come to us.”
For the first few months, the samples will be labelled as positive or negative so the dogs can be trained to detect the correct volatile.
The next stage will be a clinical trial phase, when trainers and dogs will not know which samples are positive or negative. Statisticians can then examine how reliable the dogs’ detection is.
The investigation is being carried out by the same team, led by breast surgeon Giles Cunnick, who looked after Dr Guest when she herself was diagnosed with breast cancer – which was detected by her own dog, Daisy.
MDD is also preparing an ethics proposal to work with Milton Keynes Hospital on a study of urological cancers, including prostate cancer, which Dr Guest hopes will start early next year.
MDD has published its first study on the accuracy and reliability of its first-placed diabetes alert dogs and is now doing a longitudinal study with Addenbroookes Hospital looking at the dogs’ impact on the number of hosptal admissions.
Now based in Great Horwood, the charity began life in in 2008 in tumbledown premises in Westcott.
The move to its new base on Greenway Business Park in 2011 was facilitated by a £20,000 grant from Winslow benefactor Roger Jefcoate.
Since then the operation has expanded out of all recognition, now employing 25 staff and about 550 volunteers.
The world’s first peanut detection dog, Nano, has been with his owner for the past year, and now another dog is being being trained to detect nuts at a much lower level in the environment.
Dr Guest said: “We’re running a very, very busy assistance dog programme and at the same time we’re running groundbreaking research projects. It’s all about being so passionate about wanting the organisation to develop.
“I want everyone who comes in contact with the organisation to feel as inspired by it as we do.”
Clearly impressed was the Duchess of Cornwall, who made a visit to MDD in 2013 and followed this with an invitation to give a demonstration at St James’s Palace in April, whenit was announced she had become the charity’s Royal patron.
Dr Guest said: “Obviously, it was a huge honour to be at the palace, but to have royal approval has made a difference. It just opens doors. I’ve got a speaking engagement at the House of Lords in a few weeks’ time.”
Dr Guest is also in demand in an advisory role all over the world.
When we met she had just returned from a conference in Denver, Colorado. She has been asked to be an advisor for a couple of projects in the USA and one in Hawaii concerning the detection of a new disease from urine.
MDD is lucky to have the loyal support of local fundraisers, including those who ran in the Swanbourne Endeavour last month.
Recently, the charity received its newest trainee, a golden doodle called Mary, in memory of the well-known dog lover and former owner of Buckingham Pet Foods, Mary Rouse. Following Mrs Rouse’s death, her family made a £700 donation to MDD.
But Dr Guest is keen to increase support in the local area.
Dr Guest is the first to admit: “No charity can run without very supportive volunteers.”
Although MDD recently recruited a new batch of puppy socialisers, it still needs more.
Find out more about what’s involved at a puppy socialiser information morning at 11am on Monday, December 1. For more information, see http://medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk