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Team of Penn puppies being trained to detect ovarian cancer

In the battle against ovarian cancer, three puppies at the University of Pennsylvania will be on the front lines.

IN THE BATTLE against ovarian cancer, three puppies at the University of Pennsylvania will be on the front lines. The pups - Ohlin and Thunder, both Labradors, and McBain, a springer spaniel - have been conscripted to lead the charge in a novel collaboration announced last week between Penn and the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

Ovarian cancer claims the lives of more than 14,000 women every year and is the fifth leading cause of cancer-related deaths in women in the nation. The new collaboration takes aim at the silent killer with a combination of chemistry, nanotechnology - and dogs.

Turns out, each cancer has its own odor. And what better sensor is there to detect a faint scent than a dog's nose?

Researchers at Penn and Monell recently received an $80,000 grant from the Kaleidoscope of Hope Foundation to develop new ways of sniffing out gynecological malignancies.

Using man's best friend to detect cancer isn't new. Studies in California, Chicago and Europe in the last decade have employed trained canines to detect lung and breast cancer. Ovarian cancer is notoriously difficult to detect in its early stages because its symptoms - constipation, weight gain, bloating or more frequent urination - are easily confused with other ailments. If it's diagnosed early, ovarian cancer has a survival rate of 90 percent.

In the new program, scientists from Penn Medicine's Division of Gynecologic Oncology will take tissue and blood samples from both healthy and ovarian cancer patients.

The samples will be analyzed by chemists, scientists working with nanotech - and the puppies at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

"We've been training them since they've been 8 weeks old," said Cynthia Otto, director of the Working Dog Center and associate professor of critical care at Penn Vet. "They're all fabulous and they are very strong in olfaction," or smelling.