Who’s a good boy? A medical detection dog with a nose that can identify the presence of disease much earlier than a doctor or laboratory. Medical detection dogs can identify several types of cancer and other diseases with up to 99% accuracy. Some dogs can now detect COVID-19. But man’s best friend also requires training, housing, feeding, transport, and veterinary care. Add basics like potty breaks, sleep, and exercise, and you have a highly accurate but significantly impractical early disease detection solution. 

Now, a multi-institutional team of researchers have announced they have developed a new system that could bestow the powers of a dog’s nose upon a cell phone. Like similar innovations — such as the SniffPhone that Health Tech Insider covered in 2016 and 2018 — the system’s sensor has greater sensitivity than even a dog’s nose (200 times greater, in this case). 

The new system, however, puts canine accuracy on the table along with smell sensitivity. Researchers from organizations including MIT, Johns Hopkins University, Medical Detection Dogs, UK, and the Prostate Cancer Foundation used AI technology to mimic canine olfactory processing. 

Dogs understand smell in ways humans will never comprehend. A dog’s nose has about 300 million olfactory receptors: 50 times the amount of receptors found in a human nose. Once those receptors have absorbed all the tiny details of a smell, a dog devotes roughly 40 times more brain tissue than a human to process olfactory sensory information. 

What’s more, dogs sometimes correctly identify cancers they have never been trained to recognize. This uncanny ability continues to befuddle canine research scientists because the unexpected disease typically has nothing in common with the target disease: no molecular similarity, no smellable biomarkers, nothing. 

The new mechanical sniffing system uses a miniature sensor containing stabilized mammalian olfactory receptors. By training a neural network to identify patterns based on existing dog identification samples, the system’s AI replicates that je ne sais quoi of a dog’s olfactory processing power even though humans don’t understand exactly why a dogs get it right so frequently. 

Tests comparing the miniature sensor system with medically trained dogs found the system had roughly the same accuracy rate as the real doggy deal. Both canines and their electronic counterpart correctly identified prostate cancer in urine samples with more than 70% accuracy. The research team has published their findings in the journal PLOS One.

But it’s the size of the new system that really has tails wagging. The researchers believe the system could transform smartphones into automated, mobile odor-detection devices. That means a cellphone could automatically scan for concerning odors and upon detection send an alert to a medical provider without anyone lifting a finger (or a nose). And, of course, you never have to scoop up anything smelly when you walk your phone.