Dogs could be used to detect malaria in the future, according to new research from the U.K.'s Durham University that is being backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The foundation – formed by the Microsoft founder and his wife in 2000 - has focused much effort in finding a cure for malaria and is now funding the ground-breaking research with a $100,000 grant looking at how the animals' sharp sense of smell could save thousands by sniffing out the disease early on.
Alongside Durham University, researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the NGO organization Medical Detection Dogs and the Medical Research Council Unit in the Gambia, Africa, are hoping dogs will lead the way to non-invasive testing that can detect malaria and be used on large numbers of samples at a time.
Current tests require finger-prick blood collection and laboratory screening but, in contrast, dogs are portable and rapid, said senior lecturer James Logan in a post on the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine's blog.
"We know that dogs can successfully detect certain types of cancer, and can even be trained to warn people with diabetes when their blood sugar levels are higher or lower than a specific range," said Logan.
Another benefit of using canines is transportability – dogs are much more portable than lab kits, and can be used on the ground without laboratories. If the research proves successful, dogs could also be used at ports of entry for screening travelers.
"Work in our own laboratory, and elsewhere, suggests that infection with malaria can alter a host's smell. Pilot studies have also shown that distinctive chemicals can be detected in the breath of malaria-infected individuals. If dogs could sniff out the odor clues to identify people with malaria, they could be a new and valuable way of detecting the disease," said Logan.
The research, currently in its very early stages, will collect urine and sweat samples from 400 Gambian children, including a proportion known to have malaria. The children will be asked to wear nylon socks for 24 hours, which will be used together with skin swabs to provide the sweat samples, according to the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
The dogs will then be trained to distinguish between positive and negative samples using odor clues.
Malaria, a tropical disease spread by mosquitoes, is a huge global health threat that can often be deadly, especially for pregnant women and young children. There were an estimated 214 million malaria cases and 438,000 deaths in 2015 - 90 percent of those in Africa, according to Durham University.