K9’s have been used for everything from police work to search and rescue during disasters. But did you know they are also being trained to sniff out COVID-19 and other diseases in humans? The research is being done in the Keystone state.

“I was a member of PA Task Force one. I was deployed, went to 9-11 really molded my life,” said Dr. Cindy Otto, DVM, Ph.D., Director, Penn Vet Working Dog Center.

Otto, after caring for K9’s searing in the rubble nearly 20 years ago thought,  “What can we do better for these dogs? How can we help them?”

Those questions led to the formation of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in West Philadelphia launched on September 11, 2012.

“With this vision of being the legacy, of 9-11 of being a good thing that came out of such a horrific event,” Otto said. Penn Vet Working Dog’s mission expanded. “So, we are using dogs, to help detect conditions that affect people,” Otto said. Conditions, like COVID-19.

“We are going to see Toby,  our COVID-19 detection dogs finding a COVID positive t-shirt sample on a scented wheel,” Dr. Amritha Mallikarjun, Post-Doctoral Researcher said. “He has been working for the past few months to learn positive smell on t-shirts that have been worn by volunteers who were positive or negative.” 

But just how accurate is Toby’s nose?

“Imagine you and a dog are standing on a building in New York City, if scent was vision you could see about one block down, your dog would be able to see all the way to San Diego. So, dogs have about a 100 -thousand-times the sense of smell than we do,” Mallikarjun said. Impressive.

COVID-19 is not the only disease these dogs can detect through samples. They can sniff out hard-to-find infections and even cancers, including ovarian.

“We know dogs can pick it up — an odor in the blood plasma of patients that have ovarian cancer — and that is a unique odor,” Mallikarjun said.

“Crunch is working on the Sinonasal inverted-papilloma or SNIP for short. It’s a tumor that occurs in your nose that can grow into your brain. It’s one of those diseases you don’t know you have until it’s very advanced,” Otto said. “This lab’s proof of concept, connected with another researcher on the other side of campus. That has spawned a wonderful collaboration with a physicist. Dr. Charlie Johnson at the University has developed this electronic sensor. Pieces of DNA that bind to the odor and when they bind it causes an electrical signal. It’s working almost like the nose.”

A discovery that could find diseases faster and save more lives.

“There are so many opportunities for in the future I think for dogs and people to work together.  It may be there are situations where dogs are going to outpace the electronic sensors they can work together, that we can start to ask questions. I think what it has done is completely shifted our understanding of disease and ways to diagnosis it,” Otto said. 

Dr. Johnson is getting funding from the National Institutes of Health to develop a patient testing prototype for COVID-19 soon with the goal to use it for other diseases, too. 

If you would like to help with the COVID-19 study, click this link. We also have a digital-exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at search and rescue dog training Penn Vet Working Dog Center here.