The future of early-stage cancer detection may exist in the snout of the jovial, floppy-eared beagles of Bioscent DX.
A half-dozen beagles cheerily flop around Heather Junqueira’s heels as she leads them to their play yard behind her Myakka City home. Their joyful tripping and wagging turns into all-out run of the yard, playing two-by-two in the fenced-in area. They jump and greet visitors with happy eyes and sloppy kisses — when they can get away with it.
It’s a typical weekday morning for the dogs, gleeful playtime after they’ve put in their 40 minutes (or so) a day conducting serious business — detecting cancer.
Five years ago, Junqueira started BioScent K9, a nonprofit organization that trains diabetic alert dogs that can detect the scent of low blood sugar to alert a diabetic of an oncoming episode. Shortly after starting BioScent K9, she lost her father to late-detected cancer.
With a background in breeding and genetics, Junqueira began researching cancer and came across a program at the Pine Street Foundation in San Anselmo, Calif. Foundation researchers were working with dogs to detect breast and lung cancer by sniffing human breath condensation or saliva. The research showed the dogs detecting cancer at early stages.
“I thought, wow, that could have saved my father’s life,” says Junqueira.
Discussions with the lead researcher turned into a new opportunity for BioScent. “He sent me all of his research — even some that wasn’t published. To get it accepted and mainstream, the process would have to be duplicated by different organizations.”
Junqueira began training the beagles to sniff out cancer. They’re the ideal breed, she says, because they have more olfactory nerves than other dogs, and their big floppy ears help waft the scent to their snout. Plus, they’re good natured and single-minded enough to stay focused on the task.
She and the pups were onboard, but her nonprofit wasn’t generating enough funds to support the research. As many a Sarasota story goes, Junqueira was chatting with fellow gymnastics parent and owner of Evo Athletics, Kyle Lawton, an entrepreneur who retired after developing a radiology software company in his garage. Lawton perked up when it sunk in that Junqueira was performing cutting-edge work.
With the desire to help move Junqueira’s venture forward, Lawton and his partner, Tampa-based Michael Moore, decided to invest. They started with the construction of a 4,000-square-foot facility on Junqueira’s 17-acre property, which is dedicated to cancer detection training. They also help fund the day-to-day operations of the new company, BioScent DX, which is separate from the diabetic alert training and dedicated to cancer screening.
Junqueira is almost exclusively working with and training BioScent DX’s beagle staff of 24. She also works alongside two dozen interns, who perform everything from research to caretaking. The beagles stay at the Myakka facility during the week but become part of Junqueira’s family or go to volunteer foster homes on weekends.
Lawton and Moore also helped Junqueira obtain the approval of an independent review board governed by the FDA, allowing DX to sell the experimental tests to people online. That was a hotly contested review, she says, but a review board member — a military veteran — pointed out that he’d entrusted the lives of his servicemen to bomb-detecting dogs every day.
Dogs are commonly used to sniff out drugs or imported foods in airports, and they’re vital in helping to fight fires. Those dogs are often larger and stronger in the event they need to take out a suspect or jump over structures. The lower-bellied beagle, however, is ideal for medical studies.
JB, named after James Bond, is a 1-year-old puppy in training. He bounds happily into the detection room, where Junqueira has placed a variety of canisters at JB’s snout level. One of the canisters contains a breast cancer sample that was collected by extracting the breath condensation off a paper face mask. The other canisters contain control samples.
Within seconds, JB has dipped his nose in several of the canisters around the room and sits attentively next the breast cancer sample. “You found it!” Junqueira says as she presses a clicker to confirm and hands him a treat.
“I could train a Labrador to do the same work, but it would take a Lab two to three minutes to go through the room and find a positive sample,” she says. “The beagle will find it in about five seconds. They live to smell — they could do it all day. Other breeds would get bored with it.”
And the beagles are good at finding the cancer. Like, really good at it.
“It’s an elegantly simple process with 98% accuracy,” Lawton says. “We all have a one-in-five chance of getting cancer. Why wouldn’t you breathe into a mask for five minutes? It’s a no-brainer.”
BioScent DX sells the experimental breath tests online and delivers results within four weeks. The detection tests are $50 apiece but if financial assistance is needed, a person can visit sniffingoutcancer.org to see if help is available. Each test delivers a positive or negative cancer result, which in the case it is positive should be followed up with traditional diagnostic or ultrasound tests to confirm its location.
But what exactly is it in the cancer that the dogs are smelling? No one knows. That’s why BioScent DX has partnered with research professors like Dr. Tom Quinn and faculty at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Lakewood Ranch.
“We don’t know what they’re detecting, and that’s what we’re trying to do back here in the biochemistry lab,” says Quinn. “We’re breaking it down into elements and trying to determine which one of those the dogs are identifying.”
Once the researchers break that code, they can replicate it and design a test similar to a pregnancy test available at the local drug store. Although the low-cost and noninvasive nature of the beagle test has many advantages, it’s not meant as a replacement for a mammogram or other detection test.
“All the test says is yes or no, it doesn’t say where,” says Quinn.
However, based on Lawton’s numbers, the dogs’ results are seemingly better than mammograms, which have an 87% success rate in accurately identifying cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. And the beagles are smelling the cancer in its earliest stages.
“We had one patient where the dog identified the cancer, but doctors couldn’t find it until 18 months later,” Quinn says.
And that’s another major game changer. If the dogs detect it before a mass develops, treatment can possibly head it off.
“Down the road, this is opening the realm to treat cancer at the cellular level — like simple dietary changes,” says Junqueira. “That’s my hope — that this will prompt other research.”
Quinn sees the correlation. “If we catch it early, we can cure almost every form of cancer,” he says. “And I have no doubt that this will lead to earlier detection.”
BioScent DX has received some interest for a variety of organizations, even insurance groups.
“They told us that early detection saves money and lives,” says Lawton. “Like with lung cancer, if you catch it early and get a lumpectomy, you’re looking at $30,000. But if you wait and suffer later, it’s more like $1.5 million. The insurance company told us if we prevent one person from going through that, we’ve paid for it.”