If you are already used to your dog recognizing when you are sick, and even trying to comfort or take care of you, you may not be surprised by the SpotItEarly concept. The start-up trains dogs to differentiate, through scent, between healthy and unhealthy persons. The company claims that dogs can be accurate in detecting cancer, and can do so far earlier than existing diagnostic systems, which are also much more expensive, less accessible, and certainly less pleasant. Obviously, petting a pooch is the cheapest, simplest, and most pleasant way imaginable to perform cancer screening.
The company has completed a $6.2 million seed round, with participation by US-Israeli fund Hanaco Ventures, which invests mainly in software, Jeffrey Swartz, the former owner and CEO of Timberland, venture capitalist Michael Eisenberg, Wix CEO Avishai Abrahami, and Fox-Wizel CEO Harel Wizel.
For the test to be accepted by the market, it must be accurate enough to detect cancer in at least a percentage of the people who would otherwise not go for screening, or whose cancer was not detected through screening. It must detect the disease early enough, while not causing diagnostic clinics (particularly advanced imaging centers) to be overrun with false alarms. Can dogs really diagnose the disease accurately? The company has not yet released results from official clinical trials, but its first trial is now in progress. In a preliminary study, the company’s technology demonstrated sensitivity in detecting the presence of early-stage cancer.
The test using dogs diagnoses the presence of several types of cancer: lung, prostate, breast, colon, and possibly other types. The company states that early in the disease, cancerous tumors secrete, first into the blood and then into the respiratory system, molecules that carry volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Each type of cancer has its own odor, and they also have a common denominator.
The test subjects, perhaps unfortunately, do not meet up with the dogs. Rather, they exhale into a face mask for five minutes. This can be done at home, at a diagnostic center, or a clinic. The mask is then sent to the company's lab, where the samples are inserted into sniffing stations, and the dogs pass between the stations. Each sample is scanned by several dogs, to eliminate distortions due to differences between dogs, or variables such as a dog having a cold, or being in a bad mood. And if you're worried that the dogs are being worked hard, according to the company, this is a fun game for them.
The dogs are not only trained to bark when they find a relevant test, but also wear sensors. An artificial intelligence system analyzes the dog's physical response to each sample.
The company was founded by four longtime friends: technologists Roi Ofir, Ohad Sharon, and Udi Bobrovsky , and the former commander of the IDF "Oketz" canine unit, Col. (Res.) Ariel Ben Dayan .
This is not the first time the idea of diagnosing cancer using dogs has made headlines. In 2019, there were news stories about Dog Prognose, a laboratory where one could send a saliva sample and receive an immediate answer as to whether one had cancer. The laboratory, established by dog trainer Uri Beckman, even reported it had diagnosed one woman with cancer which the classic tests had missed. Dog Prognose is still listed as active on Beckman's website, but we have not noticed any significant activity for it, either on the Internet or on social media, since those articles from 2019.
A number of companies and laboratories are attempting to develop technological tools for diagnosing diseases, using not dogs, but different types of chemical systems and technologies to detect and analyze the molecules humans emit into the air. Exalenz Biosciences, acquired by Meridian Bioscience in February 2020, is able to diagnose H. pylori disease by analyzing the patient's breath. Scentech Medical is developing an "electronic nose" to detect Covid-19 and other diseases, as is Prof. Hossam Haick’s lab at the Technion. Currently, however, there are still no "e-nose" diagnostic technologies on the market.
In the coming years, the market may be crowded with additional developments in early cancer detection. A great many companies, large and small, are developing "liquid biopsy" (also "fluid biopsy") technologies. The idea is to detect a very small amount of cancer cells in blood or other secretions, to easily achieve far earlier detection as well as a precise classification of the cancer. But none of these companies offers cuddling with a pup as part of the diagnostic process.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 30, 2022.
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