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Labradors with noses for cancer are saving lives

Patients provide a single breath sample by mail for early diagnosis

An Israeli startup is harnessing dogs’ unique biological sense of smell to detect early-stage cancers.

He is training a dozen Labradors to detect the first signs of breast, lung, colon and prostate cancer from a single breath sample.

One of the SpotitEarly dogs sniffs out a sample. Courtesy

Ariel Ben Dayan, CEO and co-founder of SpotitEarly, tells NoCamels that his company will use man’s best friend to save people’s lives.

The company has developed a simple and inexpensive test for the early detection of various types of cancer, based on a combination of artificial intelligence and detection dogs. The company’s breath test, which screens patients for breast, lung, colon and prostate cancer in a single test, paves a new path for cancer detection.

“We are developing a new type of screening test,” says co-founder Udi Bobrovsky. “We take what science has already discovered, but what was left in the scientific and academic world, and we are bringing it to real life and building a laboratory that uses this amazing ability of dogs to identify cancer. And on top of that, we’re building robust technology.”

SpotitEarly aims to scale up and commercialize existing technology that has already been used, for example, to screen passengers at airports for COVID-19. He says they should eventually be able to screen hundreds of thousands of samples a year.

Dogs can identify cancerous molecules in human breath samples. Its early detection could have important implications for patients worldwide.

Bobrovsky says: “If you find cancer in its early stages, that is, in stages one or two or even earlier, you can save nine out of 10 people. If you find cancer in, say, stage four, you can only save one in 10 people. If we can help discover cancer at an early stage, we can do something great for humanity.”

SpotitEarly sends a mask to the home of those being tested. They breathe on it and that sample is enough for the dog to do the job of detecting it. The company currently has 12 farmers, six working and six in training. They learn through a reward-based system to scan samples, which are inserted into scanning ports.

“For the dogs, participating in the testing laboratory is like a game. Imagine that a dog walks into the room and has a challenge to solve on its own. He is happy to come into the room to do his job and be rewarded,” says Bobrovsky.

The management team with some of their specially trained labradors. Courtesy

Patients who receive a positive result will undergo a mammogram, colonoscopy, or other test to give doctors a more detailed picture.

SpotitEarly was founded in 2020 by four Israelis, Roi Ophir, Ohad Sharon, Udi Bobrovsky, and Ariel Ben Dayan, with backgrounds in technology, digital health, entrepreneurship, and product development.

Ben Dayan served as commander of Israel’s prominent Oketz canine unit. “It’s the largest canine unit in the world, with more than 350 dogs and soldiers,” he says.

“I really believe in the ability of dogs and I know that they are the best biological sensor you can face. Even in the world of explosives, no one has succeeded in developing a technological nose that is better than the ability of dogs.”

It is widely known within the scientific research community that molecules within the blood system circulate to the lungs and are exhaled in the human breath. These molecules contain scent factors, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), that carry biomarkers for various genetic conditions, including cancer. Each cancer has a unique odor that can be detected and help diagnose the cancer.

The detection abilities of dogs have been studied extensively and scientists have determined that dogs can detect these cancerous odors, and the presence of VOCs, with a high sensitivity greater than 95 percent.

The screening platform offers accurate and non-intrusive screening for multiple cancer types at the same time. “Coordinating a mammogram or colonoscopy requires a lot of time and attention from both the patient and the care system,” says Bobrovsky.

“And, at the end of the day, it only covers one type of cancer. What we can do in a very easy to use screening test today is being done in an invasive test for a specific type of cancer.

“Our mission is to increase testing adoption by creating the easiest, most frictionless test we can offer people. We want them to take frequent detection measures.”

Early cancer detection

By detecting cancer early, the company hopes to not only save lives, but also lower the costs and intensity of treatment for patients diagnosed with cancer. “We are paving the way to a new field of diagnostic tools,” explains Bobrovsky.

The entire canine detection process, including the behavior of the dogs, is analyzed by the company’s proprietary technology system to maximize prediction accuracy. The rapid scanning process enables efficient patient outcomes to minimize anxiety and encourage early action against cancer.

The company is conducting a major clinical trial led by the Sourasky (Ichilov) Medical Center in Tel Aviv and the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. They are testing the effectiveness of the technology and will likely finish it in the first half of 2023. Following the conclusion of the study, SpotitEarly hopes to continue expanding the company’s operations in Israel and the United States to help more patients.

The company says it draws on the Israeli spirit of innovation, creativity and adventure to power its unique cancer detection solution.

“We love to take from our own experience, take on challenges and tackle them with extreme capabilities. At the end of the day, if we can develop this great product, we will be able to increase adoption. [of screening tests] and save the lives of many people,” says Ben Dayan.

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