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Dogs could soon be used to sniff out malaria

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Studies have shown that distinctive chemicals are found in the breath of people infected with malaria and dogs could be trained to identify these. 
Distinctive chemicals found in the breath of people infected with malaria can be sniffed out by dogs, according to new research.

The project, led by scientists from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has been awarded a £70,000 grant by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further the research. It is also being supported by the University of Durham, the Medical Research Council (MRC) in Gambia and UK charity Medical Detection Dogs.

Dogs and their acute sense of smell can already track down drugs, pursue suspects and find dead bodies – and malaria could soon be added to that list.

To conduct the research, James Logan, senior lecturer in Medical Entomology at the London School and his team will work with the MRC Unit in Gambia to collect urine and sweat samples from 400 Gambian children, including a number who are known to have malaria.

The children will be asked to wear nylon socks for 24 hours, which will be used together with skin swabs to provide sweat samples. The dogs will then be trained to distinguish between positive and negative samples using odour clues.

Tests for malaria currently involve taking blood samples by pricking the fingers of patients. These samples are then screened in a lab. A non-invasive method that doesn’t require blood samples and technical expertise could therefore improve the detection rate.

“Dog detectives do not require a laboratory; they are portable, inexpensive, and could rapidly screen many individuals,” wrote Logan in a blog post.

“They could be particularly useful in detecting malaria in communities where only a few people carry the parasite, since identifying these people, who are acting as ‘reservoirs’ that maintain malaria in the population, would allow us to eradicate the disease far more rapidly.”

“In addition, once areas are malaria-free, dogs could be used at entrances to villages, communities and even countries to detect and treat people carrying the disease before entering.”

Last year there were 214 million malaria cases and an estimated 438,000 deaths.

Sniffer dogs and disease
The malaria project isn’t the first time dogs have been used in health-related trials.

Last year, a German Shepherd called Frankie was trained to sniff out thyroid cancer in urine samples with a success rate of 88 per cent. He was trained at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and the team hailed Frankie for his “unbelievable” sense of smell.

“This is a fascinating, interesting study” said endocrinologist Dr Jason Wexler at the time. “It has high potential in areas of the world which may not have access to biopsy techniques.”

It followed a 2014 trial with Daisy the labrador in which the dog could sniff out breast cancer in 550 samples of breath, skin and urine.


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