Clinical researchers at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust (NUH) are used to the sweet smell of success as their world-beating research is changing the lives of thousands of patients.
But now they are seeking an altogether more pungent odour as they ask their NUH colleagues to take part in testing whether medical detection dogs can be used to help identify COVID-19 in patients at the earliest stage of the infection, before symptoms occur or in cases where patients do not have any symptoms.
The trial, led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) in collaboration with the charity Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University, will determine whether dogs could be used as a new rapid, non-invasive diagnostic tool for the virus. The first phase is funded by the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC).
To help train the dogs, members of NUH staff are being asked to donate samples of their breath and body odour using face masks, clothing and even their sweaty socks!
Principal Investigator for the Nottingham arm of the trial, Professor Stephen Ryder, Clinical Director for Research and Innovation at NUH, says this research is an important part of finding new, effective ways to beat COVID-19:
“It’s an unusual request, but we really do want our colleagues to give us samples of their sweat. The science behind this trial is fascinating and builds on the body of research that already exists to show that dogs are able to detect subtle changes in the human body before patients may experience symptoms of diseases like cancer or diabetes.
“It’s not every day that our research laboratories are filled with samples of human sweat and breath, but our research teams have risen to the challenge of collecting, storing and transporting samples for processing in London. We really hope that our Team NUH colleagues will come forward to donate their samples during October.”
The volunteers will provide samples of breath and body odour by wearing a face mask for three hours, and nylon socks and a t-shirt for twelve hours, using a sample collection pack supplied by the research team.
Once the samples have been collected in Nottingham, they are taken to LSHTM, where they are being processed and analysed to identify compounds in odour that signify when someone is infected with COVID-19. They are then sent to Medical Detection Dog’s training centre in Milton Keynes where the dogs will undergo training with the samples.
Having previously shown that dogs can sniff out malaria in people, LSHTM, Medical Detection Dogs and Durham University are eager to start testing them out with COVID-19 samples. They are dedicated to making sure the trial is thorough and safe for all involved, with the dogs undergoing intensive pre-training.
Project lead Professor James Logan, Head of the Department of Disease Control at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: “A huge thank you to NHS staff and their families who are supporting this vital research. If successful, this trial could revolutionise how we diagnose the virus, leading to the rapid screening of high numbers of people, even if asymptomatic, helping return our lives back to some sort of normality.”
Claire Guest, CEO and Co-Founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said: “Samples provided by NHS staff and their families will be key to the success of this trial and we’re very grateful to everyone who is supporting the project in this way.
“Our dogs have already successfully detected different types of cancer, Parkinson’s and malaria among other diseases which affect millions of people around the world. We are very proud that a dog’s nose could be part of a solution to find a fast, non-invasive way of diagnosing COVID-19 and make a tangible difference to any future pandemics. We look forward to sharing the news that the dogs can find the odour of the virus and the accuracy levels they achieve.”
Professor Steve Lindsay, from the Department of Biosciences at Durham University, said: “If we can show that our trained dogs can identify people carrying the virus, but who are not sick, it will be a game changer. We will then be able to scale-up the use of dogs at ports of entry to identify travellers entering the country with the virus. This could be very important to help prevent a second wave of the epidemic.”
Nationally the research team aim to recruit at least 3,500 staff members to provide samples, with a target of collecting 1,000 samples – 325 positive and 675 negative – in order to confidently ascertain if these dogs can accurately detect the disease.
Should the trial be successful, these dogs could be deployed to airports in the UK within six months to assist with the rapid screening on people travelling from abroad – with the potential of screening of up to 250 people per hour.
More information about how members of NUH staff can volunteer for the study can be found on the NUH website: https://www.nuh.nhs.uk/medical-detection-dogs-covid