Medical Notes 19-07

Medical Notes this week…

A cancer diagnosis can create stress that goes beyond the breaking point. A new study in the journal Nature Communications shows that people with cancer are more than four times more likely to commit suicide compared to other people. White men and people who receive a diagnosis at a younger age are most likely to complete suicide, along with people who are diagnosed with lung, head and neck, and testicular cancers. Researchers say that even though cancer is a major cause of death in the U.S., most cancer patients survive it and die of other causes.

Electric scooters are a rapidly rising cause of injury, and a new study shows that one in three people involved in an e-scooter accident is injured badly enough to need treatment in the E.R. The study in the journal JAMA Network Open shows that 40 percent of those hurt had head injuries and another 32 percent had fractures. Only four percent of those hurt were wearing a helmet at the time of the crash. Falls rather than collisions made up nearly three-quarters of the accidents.

And finally… it turns out that people who are good navigators are almost always good at identifying smells as well. A study in the journal Nature Communications finds that the same area of the brain is used for both of these two very different tasks, and that the brain region is bigger in people who are good at them. Scientists admit the finding surprised them.

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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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