Zaphiris envisions every hospital having a five-dog team that screens samples from their patients for cancer. Accreditation and approval by the FDA is one of the program’s hurdles.
“Our hope is to bring a screening method for early stage cancer to the public,” Zaphiris said. “If we find cancer early, we can cure it. Our goal is to save lives.”
Don’t mistake Zaphiris’s intentions: She has no desire to replace other vital technologies for cancer detection and treatment. However, there are endless possibilities with the development of an FDA-approved, widespread canine detection procedure, she said.
People in remission could have follow-up tests more frequently, offering them peace of mind. Medical bills wouldn’t be as high. Testing wouldn’t leave a person radiated, cut or prodded. People could find out even earlier if they have cancer, before it reaches later, potentially fatal stages.
And most importantly – it’d be an accurate assessment. Dogs trained with InSitu have a 98 percent accuracy rate when detecting lung and breast cancer, according to a study published in 2006 in the Journal of Integrative Cancer Therapies. It may sound far-fetched, but there’s less room for doubt when considering the dog’s impeccable snout.
While current screenings can certainly detect cancer early and reduce the chance of death, some tests may cause bleeding or other health problems, can offer false positive and false negative results, or result in overdiagnosis, according to the National Cancer Institute.
Prostate and breast cancer screenings don’t have as high of an accuracy rate as Zaphiris’s dogs.
Fifty percent of women screened annually for 10 years in the United States will experience a false positive, and of those women, seven to 17 percent will have biopsies, according to the National Cancer Institute.
When it comes to the prostate-specific antigen test, most men with an elevated PSA level turn out not to have prostate cancer, according to the Cancer Institute. About 25 percent who have a biopsy actually have cancer.
“Our machines and tests give people false positives all the time,” Zaphiris said. “A dog can do something no machine can do, which is find early stage cancer in a non-invasive way.”
Zaphiris said it’s a “magical, meant to be” reason she ended up doing cancer research with her team of four-legged pals. Her mother was diagnosed with cancer around the same time she was offered a chance to participate in medical research, which she has been doing since 2003. She unfortunately lost her mother to cancer in 2010, but her research continues with vigor.
Part of the foundation’s continued growth includes a partnership with Enloe Medical Center, which has contributed $40,000 to help the foundation expand its fundraising and training efforts, according to Jolene Francis, Enloe Foundation director of advancement and communications.
A little puppy named Enloe will be trained to find cancer and work at InSitu, returning, like all of Zaphiris’s canine employees, back to the home of its family every night.
“It’s an early partnership and we’re defining it as it goes,” Francis said. “We are very intrigued by the work they are doing. We are very interested to see where it goes in the future.”
Traci Hunt, director of Enloe Regional Cancer Center, will be raising Enloe the puppy with her family. They’re excited about the program’s potential, she said. This could be another tool to “give people hope” and even save their lives.
“As much as we encourage screenings, sometimes there are things that aren’t effective until cancer’s more progressed,” she said. “I’m curious and intrigued by what this science and technology could offer in the future for patients.”
Research like this has helped change the landscape of cancer treatment for patients, Hunt said.
“We’ve come a long way in treating cancer, and patients have better outcomes,” she said. “I think that’s because places like InSitu foundation are saying, ‘What if; What can we do?'”
Cathy Dorchuck, a service dog trainer from Houston, Texas, attended the InSitu training this February and said she’s already using Zaphiris’s methods to improve her own business. She trains canines to recognize chemical changes that, for example, signal seizures in those with epilepsy and rapidly dropping blood sugar in diabetics.
“We want to use these amazing dogs to help people,” she said. “That’s why we do what we do.”
Once a hospital has a program with Zaphiris’s methods in a place, she said, there will be a benchmark for others to follow
“I came home extremely inspired,” she said. “I can’t wait until I can find someone to collaborate with and I can start doing this here on our scale.”
Dorchuck said Zaphiris’s method could be adapted to many different disorders and diseases. In fact, InSitu has already trained e.coli detection dogs to help discover UTI infections in those with disabilities. Dorchuck said what is happening at the foundation will absolutely really help a lot of people.
“Dina’s science is solid,” she said, “and her methodology is very easy to follow.”
While she said Houston is not too open-minded about cancer-detecting dogs just yet, Dorchuck is determined to change people’s minds.
“It sounds too good to be true and then you watch Stewie,” she said. “There is no machine that’s been created that is both specific and sensitive. These dogs are.”
Contact reporter Ashiah Scharaga at 896-7768.