Dr. Yoel and one of his cancer-sniffing friends. Photo by Dani Machlis/BGU
If dogs can sniff out explosives and narcotics, could they also be trained to detect cancer?
Israeli internist Dr. Uri Yoel, 43, has demonstrated that dogs are indeed capable of differentiating between the scent of cancer cells and non-cancerous cells.
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“Our research proves that dogs can smell cancer cells in vitro [in lab cultures], and that different types of cancer share the same smell print,” says Yoel, who practices at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheva and teaches at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Faculty of Health Sciences.
News of the study has put a bit of a spotlight on the physician, a modest 43-year-old father of five who enjoys nothing more than a challenging desert hike.
In 2002, he and his wife, Michal, moved with their two toddlers to Kfar Rafael, a Negev community where adults with special needs live together with foster families. The community sees to the well-being and development of these “villagers” within an integrative social environment.
Today, 120 people live at Kfar Rafael: 52 villagers ages 21 to 75, 11 foster parents with 19 children, and 27 young volunteers. Michal works with villagers in Kfar Rafael’s weavery.
Being around people with special needs is second nature to the Yoel kids, aged 14, 12, 10, 7 and 3½. Their father believes it brings out the softer side of their personalities.
“For those born here, the setting is completely natural. Until age 10, my [older] children didn’t know the word ‘mentally retarded.’ They just knew that some people need extra help,” Yoel tells ISRAEL21c. “We didn’t have to talk with them about it. It’s their life.”
Even though Yoel does not officially work for the village, people regularly call him for medical care.
“I know everyone and everyone knows me. I’m not the doctor of the village, but the doctor comes twice weekly and the rest of the time if there is an emergency of any kind, I take care of it,” says Yoel, who was raised on Kibbutz Ramat Rachel in southern Jerusalem.
Combining heart, hands and head
His research project with cancer-sniffing dogs, completed last year and soon to be published, has no connection to his fields of specialty, internal medicine and endocrinology. “But it’s important to do interesting things in your life,” says Yoel.
The project was done during the second half of his internal medicine residency at the suggestion of Dr. Pesach Shvartzman, head of Ben-Gurion’s Sial Research Center for Family Medicine and Primary Care.
“His son knew a dog trainer and they were talking about what he could do for the community, so they looked for someone to help him,” Yoel relates. “In medicine, it’s hard to take a dream and take it to a practical, real-life level.”
The volunteer trainers readied two dogs for the research, using positive reinforcement to reward identification of cancer cells by scent.
It was already known that can dogs can detect cancer with their noses. Their level of accuracy depends on their training. But Yoel wanted to find out whether the dogs are actually smelling the cancer cells or an odor from the body’s physiological reaction to those cells.
To answer that question, Yoel tested the trained dogs using cultured breast cancer cells, rather than human subjects. “We can say for sure they can differentiate between cancerous and non-cancerous cells, and that suggests there is a smell print for cancer itself since its metabolism is different,” he says.
Then, he tested the dogs’ ability to sniff out lung and skin cancer cells, which they had not been trained to detect. Significantly, the canines got it right every time.
“For me that is the most important finding, because for breast cancer we have mammography and for colon cancer we have colonoscopy but for lung cancer we have no screening test,” says Yoel. “When discovered early, the prognosis for lung cancer is excellent, but usually it is not found until it is quite big.”
A screening test for lung cancer could potentially save many people at risk, especially smokers. Another Israeli company, BioView, is working toward that goal from a different approach.
If a budget comes available, Yoel says he’d be happy to pay the dog trainer to continue this line of research with cancer patients, but for now his plan is to finish his endocrinology residency and continue practicing medicine at the hospital as well as teaching.
He relates that when he began university, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a doctor, an architect or farmer. His wife helped him decide and he has no regrets. “I think it was a good decision. I chose internal medicine because it is the most broad — you must combine your heart, hands and head.”