Monday, December 17, 2012

Dog shown capable of sniffing bacterial infections

Bacteria are incredibly tiny, and that means that we need special techniques to determine whether a patient has been infected or not. That means taking samples of bodily fluids or tissues from the patient and analysing those in the lab. It takes a while before a sample is analysed, and that means the bacteria has the time to spread. It would be therefore be of great benefit if there was a method that could instantly tell us whether a patient is infected or not, enabling us to isolate them directly. Surprisingly, such techniques are actually realistic, but in quite a different way from what one would expect: instead of complex biotechnology, it appears to be as simple as getting a dog to sniff the patient.

Dutch researchers trained a dog to be able to pick up a very specific scent. Patients that are suffering from a C. difficile infection often have diarrhea and that has such a specific scent that this particular dog, called Cliff, was able to pick it up and point out which patients carry this infection. Cliff is a 2-year-old Beagle and is part of an ongoing research project.

Naturally, it is important to ascertain that the dog is not picking up false positives or falsely point out infected patients. To this end, Cliff was put to the test by sniffing stool samples, that were either infected with C. difficile or free of microbes of that kind. After the dog showed capable of identifying the samples, he was taken to the clinic to test his ability to find infected patients on hospital wards. 25 out of the 30 infections were recognized by Cliff, while 265 out of the 270 negative controls were accurately left alone.

The study shows that dogs can be trained to smell the presence of bacteria, and this may also work for other types of infections. We already use dogs for a variety of purposes in which we require a good nose, but who would have thought that dogs are actually able to smell bacteria and thereby prove to be clinically useful? And because these animals detect them a lot faster than all our current microbiological techniques, they may actually start showing up more in hospitals.

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