The Animals That Can Smell Cancer

Posted by Big Rat on Campus on Feb 17, 2016 in Rat News | Subscribe

In Dar es Salaam I meet Claudi, a boy whose TB was picked up by Apopo. He’s waiting for me on the crumbling concrete porch of his home in Tandale, a slum suburb, in a yellow short-sleeved school shirt and grey shorts. It’s in suburbs like this, where many people often share a house and nutrition is poor, that TB can spread relatively easily, explains Scholastica Myemba, who works for Apopo and is completing a master’s in public health at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Myemba supervises Apopo’s team of outreach volunteers—people who track down patients identified thanks to the rats and make sure they take their medication. She translates as Claudi’s grandmother explains what happened. Claudi is 8 now. He was 6 when he got sick. “He was not in a good condition,” his grandmother says. “He was coughing and coughing and not feeling good.”

When she took him to the TB clinic at nearby Tandale Hospital, the standard microscope test for TB came back negative. Claudi continued to suffer. But then, just over a week after the negative result, the family were contacted by an Apopo volunteer, who explained that Claudi’s sample had been checked again, this time by rats. The rats had flagged Claudi’s sample for further testing—and this test confirmed he had TB.

Claudi was prescribed antibiotics by the doctors to treat his TB. The volunteer came every day to make sure Claudi took his pills for the full six-month course of treatment. Now, he is healthy and able to work hard at school.

Still, Mgode explains, the benefits of a correct diagnosis go beyond access to life-saving drugs. For some patients, there is also the stigma of being suspected of having HIV.

Not long ago, with a group of Apopo donors, Mgode met a man in Morogoro whose TB had been detected by the rats. “Afterwards I asked him in Swahili: ‘When you went to hospital and were diagnosed negative, how did you feel?’ He said: ‘Ah, my colleagues were asking me: “Man, if not TB, what else?”’ That is the problem. He was feeling like even his friends were thinking he had HIV. So when he got the rats’ result showing TB, he was so happy.”

Weetjens and Mgode both talk about how difficult it is to get funding for the rat program. Much of what Apopo does get consists of an assortment of relatively small donations from various governments and businesses along with proceeds from an initiative that allows individuals to ‘adopt’ a rat. The pace and scope of the dog research also suffers from a lack of funding, says Claire Guest.

For Guest, the success of the Apopo rat program is “inspirational.” When it comes to the dogs, the next three years will be critical, she says. If the prostate cancer and breast-cancer studies go well, then she hopes dogs will join the rats as fully fledged disease detectors. She also hopes, like Mgode with his rats, that further work may demonstrate that dogs can detect disease at an earlier stage than many current techniques.

As for the rats, no matter what happens in the future in terms of hopes for expansion—and funding—“already the technique is saving a lot of people,” Mgode says. “Already, the impact is huge.”


This article appears courtesy of Mosaic.

Article source: http://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/02/rats-dogs-cancer/463005/

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