Alfie and Charlie are only four months old, but they're already training to become cancer detection specialists at the University of California, Davis.

And oh yeah, they're dogs.


A multi-disciplinary team of veterinarians, physicians, and animal experts from UC Davis and the surrounding area are coming together to train Alfie (a labradoodle) and Charlie (a German shepherd) to hone their ability to recognize the scent of cancer in urine, saliva, and even human breath.

That's right, Alfie and Charlie will be able to sniff out cancer.

Thanks to their high-powered super sniffers, dogs are perfect for the job.

A dog has more than 220 million olfactory receptors in its nose, while humans have a measly 5 million. This explains why a dog can detect smells 10,000 to 100,000 times better than their two-legged best friends.

This dog can smell you through the screen. Photo by iStock.

In an interview for the PBS show "NOVA," sensory expert James Walker put it plainly: "If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well."

The pups will spend the next 12 months undergoing rigorous training.

Led by dog expert Dina Zaphiris, who has trained dozens of canines to detect breast and ovarian cancer, Alfie and Charlie will begin scent training. This involves not only recognizing cancer but learning to ignore everything else. Socialization is also an important part of the training, since the pups will work so closely with humans.

It's all in preparation for early 2016, when the dynamic duo will start screening individuals in a UC Davis clinical trial.

Alfie and Charlie show off their staff IDs. Photos by UC Davis Health System, copyright UC Regents.

Cancer-detecting dogs may be a safe, affordable way to save lives.

When it comes to cancer, early detection is the key to survival. When breast cancer is diagnosed and treated at Stage 1, the five-year survival rate is around 98%. But even with medical and technological advances, it's still difficult to reliably detect cancers in the early stages.

Dog detection is an inexpensive, safe, non-invasive way to screen for cancer, especially early on. According to Peter Belafsky, professor and physician at UC Davis, canines like Charlie and Alfie could save countless lives.

"Our new canine colleagues represent a unique weapon in the battle against cancer....the dogs' incredible talent for scent detection could offer us humans a real jump on diagnosing cancer much earlier and thus save many more lives."


Charlie with Dr. Ralph deVere White, director of the UC Davis Comprehensive Cancer Center. Photo by UC Davis Health System, copyright UC Regents.

Charlie and Alfie may also lay the groundwork for future research.

Dogs and their sensitive noses are sniffing out a specific molecular compound when they identify cancer. Researchers don't know exactly what the dogs are smelling, but if they study canines like Charlie and Alfie and pinpoint the organic compound, they may be able to reverse-engineer a test or tool for more reliable early detection.

No bones about it: Charlie, Alfie, and the team at UC Davis are heroes.

Photo by iStock.

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