The future of medical detection in New Zealand has taken a leap forward with a German shepherd successfully sniffing out bowel cancer.
The University of Otago and K9 Medical Detection NZ have teamed up on New Zealand-first research to investigate using dogs as a diagnostic tool to sniff out bowel cancer.
It is one of New Zealand's most commonly diagnosed cancers.
After less than a year of training, German shepherd Levi can successfully sniff out bowel cancer cells in saline.
He is still in training but is detecting positive cancer samples 92.8 per cent of the time, and ignoring samples that did not contact cancer 99.8 per cent of the time.
Medical detection dogs, such as Levi, are trained to identify volatile organic compounds which are released from tumours present in medical conditions, such as cancer.
When it comes to detecting cancer, there is evidence that elevated levels of volatile organic compounds are associated with disease growth.
Research has shown that dogs can be trained to detect these odours and identify the "signature smell" associated with cancer.
According to the Bowel Cancer Foundation Trust, New Zealand can expect more than 3000 people to be diagnosed with bowel cancer each year, with about 1200 dying from it. It says 90 per cent of people can be saved if it's detected early enough.
Bowel Cancer Foundation Trust chief executive and founder Georgina Mason, who initiated the project, said she is blown away by Levi's achievements so far.
"While medical detection dogs aren't a new phenomenon, bowel cancer has never been detected in urine before. Only recently, researchers have found biomarkers in urine, which we believe the detection dogs are able to pick up on.
"We are really excited about these recent results and expect Levi to be able to replicate them replacing saline with urine from January. When he is able to do that, this research will be a world first and help put New Zealand at the forefront of bowel cancer detection."
K9 Medical Detection NZ founder and director Pauline Blomfield said the results from the first stage were very exciting.
"Despite the disruption caused throughout the year by the Covid-19 pandemic, the data recorded from K9 Levi's odour work conclusively proves this working-line dog can detect various odour concentration levels of bowel cancer in saline.
"This success confirms our training methodologies and gives confidence for year two of this trial to repeat the process with the bowel cancer samples in urine."
Otago's Biostatistics Centre director, Associate Professor Robin Turner, said the training results are very promising.
The next step is validation; an experimental design in which the trainer also does not know whether the test samples are positive or negative for cancer. This ensures she is not influencing the results, Turner said.
"These validation studies are what are required to show the test has high diagnostic accuracy."
There will be a series of validation studies conducted; moving from using the current lab-grown cancer cells in saline to lab-grown urine and then finally to real patient samples.
"At each step of the way we will need to assess the accuracy both in terms of the science but also it provides feedback for the training.
"Levi is responding exceptionally well to the training and I'm very positive that the validation will show he has high accuracy."
Levi will soon be joined in his cancer-detection training by 16-month-old German shepherd Weta.