UC DAVIS (CBS13) — Researchers at UC Davis are turning to man’s best friend to help find some cancers that are tough to detect early on.

Their names are Alfie and Charlie—Charlie’s a girl by the way. The playful puppies will grow up to be the principal investigators in cancer research.

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“Their smell is about 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than humans,” said Dr. Hilary Brodie.

Studies have shown dogs are 90 to 95 percent effective at sniffing out cancer, but researchers don’t know exactly what dogs smell that signals malignant cells.

“That’s our goal is to one; to prove that indeed, that they can differentiate patients with and without cancer. and then to try to isolate, what is the molecular compound that is being detected,” he said.

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Dog trainer Dina Zaphiris has trained more than 30 dogs to detect cancer. Alfie and Charlie will learn what cancer smells like by sniffing samples of breath, saliva or urine from people who already have throat or lung cancer. They’ll alert with a sit or down if cancer is detected.

“I don’t know how many volatile organic compounds are in a sample like urine or saliva or breath. but there’s thousands of things,” she said. “So you’re not only teaching the dog it’s one thing in that sample and they are to discard all the other things.”

Once UC Davis researchers nail down what compounds signal cancer, they hope to one day come up with an artificial nose to help detect cancer. The dogs will likely transition to help diagnose patients with cancers that are tough to detect early on.

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“That could be a very ideal environment to do screenings to see is this worth going to the operating room and biopsying,” Brodie said.