18-18 Segment 1: Using Animals to Sniff Out Disease

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With all the medical advancements humans have accomplished, it may be hard to believe but some animals are capable of a task that medical technology has yet to achieve; smell disease.

Dogs have been known to sense low blood sugar in diabetic owners. In research projects, dogs have been trained to detect prostate cancer in urine and lung cancer in breath samples. What makes them able to achieve such a feat?

Dr. Cindy Otto is the Executive Director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, located at the University of Pennsylvania. She explains that dogs are able to focus on specific scents, similar to how humans can use vision to focus on subtle changes in the environment. These talents are based on the unique ability to block out extraneous stimuli. Otto says the ultimate goal is for diagnostic machines to ‘sniff’ out the same scents animals have been trained to identify. She also hopes that scientists, using the same technology, will be able to create readily available, inexpensive diagnostic tests on a massive scale.

In Mozambique and Tanzania, a very different type of animal puts their diagnostic talents to the test. Large rats are tasked with detecting tuberculosis in humans. Dr. Christiaan Mulder, the director of Apopo, a TB program based in Belgium, says rats are much more efficient and cheaper than laboratory tests. The rats are said to rule out about 80% of the healthy individuals, saving time and money compared to laboratory tests that can take days to rule out individuals one by one.

Dr. Gary Beauchamp, Emeritus Director and President of Monell Chemical Senses Center, says there’s a lot of skepticism when it comes to using animals to detect disease. Although he points out that dogs are relied upon to detect explosives, find drugs, and track missing humans. So should we trust animals with this crucial job? It would be up to the FDA to approve any animal-based diagnosis and many agree that a technological simulation of the skill should be the ultimate goal.


  • Dr. Cindy Otto, Executive Director, Penn Vet Working Dog Center, University of Pennsylvania
  • Dr. Gary Beauchamp, Emeritus Director and President, Monell Chemical Senses Center
  • Dr. Christiaan Mulder, Director, TB program, Apopo

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18-18 Segment 2: Processed Food Addiction

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Why do we crave the foods we know aren’t good for us?

Dr. Joan Ifland, lead editor of the textbook Processed Food Addiction: Foundations, Assessment and Recovery, says processed foods impact our brains the same way as alcohol and drugs.

Have you ever had an intense craving for processed foods? Ifland says we know exactly what occurs in our brain chemistry when we crave and eat processed foods. In fact, the chemical reaction is remarkably similar to cocaine, heroin, and alcohol.

The word ‘processed’ refers to highly concentrated foods. Usually, sugar or salt is a main ingredient. On top of that, various additives are introduced which can also be highly addictive. According to Ifland, dairy and gluten even contain small amounts of morphine-like chemicals. When these foods are concentrated the amounts of highly addictive chemicals greatly increases and your brain reacts accordingly.

So what should you eat? Ifland says looks for unprocessed foods like animal proteins and vegetables. Basically, anything that is not altered into a concentrated state is a much healthier option.

Due to the fact that so many people eat processed foods, Ifland says addiction to them is widespread. Intense cravings for processed foods are the first sign of addiction and according to Ifland abstinence is the best remedy. Our society is so geared towards processed foods that the cultural pressure to consume them can be overwhelming and extremely difficult to overcome.



  • Dr. Joan Ifland, lead editor, Processed Food Addiction: Foundations, Assessment and Recovery

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Medical Notes 18-18


Medical Notes this week…

This year’s flu season is barely over but a new analysis predicts that next fall’s flu vaccine is likely to be just as ineffective as this year’s. The study in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases estimates that next fall’s flu vaccine will be only 20 percent effective against the dominant strain of influenza A. However, that’s better than nothing, so health officials are likely to say a flu shot is still worth it. Researchers say mass production of the vaccine produces mutations cutting its effectiveness by nearly 30 percent.

A lot of people take calcium supplements for bone health. But a new study finds that calcium may increase the risk of one kind of colon polyps that can later turn cancerous. The study in the journal Gut shows that calcium supplements raise the risk of sessile serrated polyps in the colon. Researchers say the increased risk is greatest in smokers and those with a previous history of polyps in the colon.

And finally, researchers say that the world’s supply of chocolate is in danger. It’s all because of a group of viruses in the six West African countries that produce 70 percent of the world’s cocoa.  A study in the Virology Journal finds that the mysterious viruses can kill trees in less than a year. However, farmers are reluctant to take down diseased trees if they’re still bearing pods and that spreads the disease quickly. scientists hope to use gene editing to develop virus-resistant plants.

And that’s Medical Notes this week.

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