Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in the United States.
The silent killer is often diagnosed too late and will kill 14,000 this year. That's where specially trained dogs could come in.
Ohlin, McBaine and Tsunami are all dogs with different personalities, but they share one special purpose.
"Lifesavers, these dogs are saving lives," said Cindy Otto, director, Penn Vet Working Dog Center, where she is leading research, teaching canines to sniff out ovarian cancer — a disease with no standard early detection test. "It is a silent killer and so many women are not diagnosed until it's too late."
Each cancer has its own odor. Otto said a dog's keen sense of smell could detect it.
"They are about 1,000 to 10,000 times better than we are at detecting any kind of odors," Otto explained.
So far, the dogs have been introduced to the smell of the cancer tissue. Researchers place three bowls on the ground and one of bowls has the odor. The dogs are trained to sit when they find it.
The ultimate goal is to use the dogs to help build a machine to detect the odor or biomarker and create a blood test to catch ovarian cancer early.
"They are training the machines so that the machines can then do millions of samples at a much lower cost, so that we don’t have any woman who can’t get this kind of screening, which is so important," Otto said.
The five-year survival rate for ovarian cancer is 44 percent. When found early it jumps to 92 percent.
All of the dogs at the center come from strong family lines with histories of hunting ability or detection work. The breeds have long noses and are used in the research because they have the largest surface area of olfactory receptors.
The program at Penn Vet Working Dog Center is supported by donation.