Researchers say beagles can help patients detect cancer earlier

WATCH: Researchers say beagles can help patients detect cancer earlier

Heather Junqueira is on a mission to save lives -- with help from her beagles.

It started about five years ago after the researcher lost her father to cancer.


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"I had worked in the service dog industry," said Junqueira, the research director at BioScent Dx. "So I started doing research to see different things that dogs could do."

She found a study by the Pine Street Foundation about dogs detecting cancer in breath samples and decided to build on it.

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Participants start by ordering a $50 kit from her company's website. It includes a surgical mask and a consent form.

Participants breathe normally into the mask for a few minutes and send it back to her farm.

Then, a technician puts the mask into a metal canister and brings out the beagles.

Each dog comes into the testing room, one at a time, and sniffs each canister. If the dog smells cancer, he sits. Any mask that tests positive is double-checked another day.

Different dogs check each sample for lung, breast, and general cancer odor.

A mask has to test positively with all the dogs in a group before Junqueira picks up the phone.

"I would make a phone call to that patient before the results arrive in the mail, to discuss it, with them because it’s experimental, it’s not a diagnosis," she explained.

The company's website boasts a 95-percent accuracy rate.

Dr. Evan Weitman, a surgical oncologist at Piedmont Atlanta Hospital, said that without seeing the raw data or methodology for the study, he could not say whether or not Junqueira's dogs are an accurate screening method.

While the doctor did not vouch for or against the study, he said that it was important to keep an open mind.

"I think anytime things are evolving in any kind of healthcare realm, you need to be really be open and you need to allow room for change and innovation," he said.

However, Weitman is worried about patients crossing the line between vigilance and paranoia.

"Because patients, particularly patients that have had a cancer diagnosis already, are always paranoid," Weitman said. "And they’re always waiting for it to come back. It's a nightmare for cancer patients."

Junqueira said that in her experience, cancer patients in remission actually appreciate the extra screening method.

"A lot of women will respond back to me be like, 'Oh, thank you I feel so much better now,' because it gives them a little bit of sense of relief because they can get tested so often," she explained.

But both Weitman and Junqueira agree that the beagles are not a replacement for mammograms and doctor visits.

"Our goal is to work together with the traditional methods, not to replace them," said Junqueira.

The researcher's long-term vision for her research doesn't even involve the dogs.

"Our end goal is to figure out what the dogs are smelling, not to actually use the dogs for a screening method," she explained.

That's where Dr. Robert Biringer and his team at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine come in.

Biringer, an associate professor of biochemistry, works with medical students to break down patient samples.

They send the smaller components back to the dogs to try to narrow down the source of the smell.

"We’re starting out with a problem of like a needle in a haystack," said Biringer. "We want to break it down into a needle in a small bird’s nest."

Junqueira and Biringer hope that their work with the dogs will help develop an early detection test that can boost people's odds at beating cancer.

"If we could save one life, it would all be worth it," said Junqueira, as she sat surrounded by dogs. "That's my goal."