Dogs are teaching machines a few tricks in disease detection

Dogs are teaching machines a few tricks in disease detection

Ah, our friend the dog. Truly, is there anything these lovable creatures wouldn’t do to help people? Dogs have been trained to use their sense of smell, one of their superpowers, to sniff out a number of dangers, from bombs to diseases. Now, they’re taking it to the next level: They’re helping to teach machines a new trick, how to detect prostate cancer.

Dogs have long demonstrated prowess at sniffing out many kinds of cancer and even COVID-19. They really shine, though, with prostate cancer, where they’ve had a 99% success rate in detecting the disease by sniffing patients’ urine samples.

But it takes time to train dogs and their availability is limited. Scientists thus have been looking for ways to replicate the canine nose and brain in a device. Now, a team of researchers at MIT and other institutions has developed a system that can detect the chemical and microbial content of an air sample with as great a sensitivity as a dog’s nose.

Using trained dogs and a detection system, they tested samples of urine from men with confirmed cases of prostate cancer and controls known to be free of the disease. They then applied a machine-learning program to tease out similarities and differences between the samples that could help the sensor-based system better identify the disease. The artificial system was able to match the success rates of the dogs.

The researchers say someday every smartphone could have a scent detector built in, just like a camera, that could pick up early signs of disease and even warn of smoke or a gas leak.

But until the machine can fetch a ball and bark at intruders, dogs will still rule.

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