Dogs can smell bombs and drugs, and recent groundbreaking research in Hawaii has determined that our canine friends can even be trained to detect life-threatening bacterial infections. Angel, a three-year-old Labrador Retriever, is one of three dogs recently trained to detect bacterial infections in a hospitalized patient. Angel, a familiar sight at the Rehab Hospital of the Pacific in Honolulu, has worked as a full-time Hospital Facility Dog for the past two years. She not only brings comfort to hospitalized patients, she also may be the key to providing early detection of life threatening infections. Angel is also the first dog ever to alert hospital staff to an infection in a hospitalized patient.
Assistance Dogs of Hawaii–which has a training center in Makawao–has partnered with The Rehab Hospital of the Pacific, Clinical Laboratories of Hawaii and The Pine Street Foundation on a project to train dogs in a hospital setting, using samples from hospital patients. The study, which has been underway for the past year, has given hope to Angel’s handler at the Rehab Hospital, therapist Kate Julian. “Angel is amazing,” Julian said. “She can detect infections in patients before they have symptoms and even before the laboratory tests can.”
Maureen Maurer, the study’s Principal Investigator, said the group of organizations is encouraged by the results and the potential they are seeing for the dogs to accurately detect various types of bacteria at a very early stage. “We knew they could do it based on our previous study, but to see them actually working in the hospital has been incredible,” Maurer said. “We are so thankful to the Rehab Hospital of the Pacific for partnering with us in this study.
“Dogs know when someone is sick,” Maurer added. “They can all smell disease like cancer or infections, we are just teaching them how to communicate this knowledge to us.”
A team from Assistance Dogs of Hawaii has been invited to present their research at the Inaugural Conference on Medical Bio-Detection at Cambridge University in England on Sept. 15, 2015. Leading researchers from around the world will be sharing the latest findings in this exciting new field; funding for the study was provided by a matching grant from the Makana Aloha Foundation and private donors.
“We are excited about sharing our findings with other researchers from around the world,” Maurer said. “There is so much untapped potential that dogs have to detect other types of infections like MRSA and C-diff. This is just the beginning.” Studies have shown that dogs are able to detect one part per trillion and have a sense of smell that is over 100,000 times stronger than humans. Researchers around the world are proving that man’s best friend can detect a growing number of diseases in humans such as cancer, diabetes and epilepsy.
The field of medical bio-detection has been growing, but the main emphasis so far has been on cancer detection; the current study on bio-detection is unique that it has a practical application. “While several studies have had very promising results, there has not yet been a practical application of the findings,” said Dr. Michael McCulloch, who is the director of the Pine Street Foundation in California and is a leading visionary in cancer research. “What is so exciting about the current study being done in Hawaii is that it is the first to be applied in a practical way. This is a big step forward in the field of medical bio-detection.”
The idea for the research came in 2010, when two clients attending the Team Training Camp at Assistance Dogs of Hawaii were hospitalized for urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTI’s are a serious medical issue for many people with disabilities, who have impaired bladder function and use catheters that can introduce bacteria. People with neurological impairment may also not experience the warning signs of an infection, such as pain. Without treatment, UTIs can spread rapidly to the kidney and blood stream, causing sepsis, which can be life threatening. UTIs are also the number one hospital acquired infection for all patients.
“UTI’s pose a serious health risk to people with disabilities due to the associated complications that can occur,” said Dr. Amen Somal, a physiatrist at the Rehab Hospital of the Pacific. “Early detection of infection is the key to preventing these potentially life-threatening complications.”
Maurer thought it would be possible to apply the protocol for cancer detection to bacterial infections and train Service Dogs to alert their partners to early stages of an infection, thus avoiding serious complications and hospitalization. At that time she was attending graduate school in California and was studying cancer detection, with Dr. McCulloch as her mentor.
For more information on the groundbreaking research–which will be presented at Cambridge University in England–call Mo Maurer at 808-250-5799 or visit Assistancedogshawaii.org.
Photo of Therapist Kate Julian and Angel visiting a patient courtesy of Assistance Dogs of Hawaii