Smells Like Health

Smells Like Health

This lesson is about the power of the nose to detect smells. From enjoying food to sensing danger, we use our noses to help us navigate the world around us. But did you ever think of nose as tool to detect disease? Well, that exactly what some dogs are now being trained to do, saving lives in the process. And even a few humans with sensitive noses can do it.

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It was a quiet night, and Dorrie Nuttall was fast asleep. Her seven-year-old son was sleeping next to her hooked up to a machine, which was supposed to alert her if his glucose levels were too low. The alert never came. Not from the machine, anyway.

Jedi, Luke’s adorable diabetes-sniffing dog, started jumping on and off the bed. Nuttall didn’t wake up, so Jedi took it up a notch. He laid on top of Nuttall. She woke up and checked Luke’s monitor. His levels seemed to be fine, but Jedi was insistent. Nuttall pricked his finger and tested the blood. His glucose was dangerously low – less than half of what was displayed on the machine’s monitor. Nuttall gave her son a glucose tablet and watched nervously as his levels stabilized. Her dog had just saved her son’s life.

Jedi isn’t the only four-legged hero sniffing out danger. Dogs are being trained to identify early warning signs for many diseases. And even untrained dogs are making a difference.

In 2008, Maureen Burns noticed that her dog, Max, seemed depressed. He was getting old, so Burns prepared for the worst, but it wasn’t Max who was in danger. She began noticing that Max sometimes sniffed her breast. Then one day, when Max was looking at her strangely, she just knew it was cancer. Sure enough, she went to the hospital where the doctors discovered a cancerous breast tumor. When it was removed, Max’s behavior changed immediately. He was once again his happy-go-lucky self. Burns credits him with saving her life.

Canines have incredibly powerful noses, but some humans can smell diseases too. Joy Milne is a former nurse who can smell Parkinson’s disease. Six years before her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Milne noticed a slight change in his scent. She couldn’t quite place the new odor and told her husband that his hygiene was lacking. It wasn’t until she met a group of people with the same odor at a Parkinson’s support group meeting that she put two and two together.

There is currently no definitive test for Parkinson’s disease. And unfortunately, symptoms tend to show after it is too late. When researchers heard that Milne had detected the disease in her husband years before he had been diagnosed, they were intrigued. They tested her ability to smell Parkinson’s, and the results were incredible. She was consistently able to identify patients with the disease.

With Milne’s help, the researchers isolated ten molecules that are found in people with Parkinson’s disease. The hope is that these molecules will lead to a test that diagnoses the disease earlier. These molecules could even be used to train dogs to smell it in patients.

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