Asher is eccentric and inquisitive. He loves an audience, likes keeping busy, and howls to be let through doors. He is a six-year-old working Cocker Spaniel, who, with five other furry colleagues, has now been trained to sniff body odor samples from humans to detect COVID-19 infections.
As the Delta variant and other new versions of the SARS-CoV-2 virus emerge, public health agencies are once again recommending masking while employers contemplate mandatory vaccination. While PCR tests remain the "gold standard" of COVID-19 tests, they can take hours to flag infections. To accelerate the process, scientists are turning to a new testing tool: sniffer dogs.
At the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), researchers deployed Asher and five other trained dogs to test sock samples from 200 asymptomatic, infected individuals and 200 healthy individuals. In May, they published the findings of the yearlong study in a preprint, concluding that dogs could identify COVID-19 infections with a high degree of accuracy – they could correctly identify a COVID-positive sample up to 94% of the time and a negative sample up to 92% of the time. The paper has yet to be peer-reviewed.
"Dogs can screen lots of people very quickly – 300 people per dog per hour. This means they could be used in places like airports or public venues like stadiums and maybe even workplaces," says James Logan, who heads the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, adding that canines can also detect variants of SARS-CoV-2. "We included samples from two variants and the dogs could still detect them."
Detection dogs have been one of the most reliable biosensors for identifying the odor of human disease. According to Gemma Butlin, a spokesperson of Medical Detection Dogs, the UK-based charity that trained canines for the LSHTM study, the olfactory capabilities of dogs have been deployed to detect malaria, Parkinson's disease, different types of cancers, as well as pseudomonas, a type of bacteria known to cause infections in blood, lungs, eyes, and other parts of the human body.
COVID-19 has a distinctive smell — a result of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds released by infected body cells, which give off an odor "fingerprint."
"It's estimated that the percentage of a dog's brain devoted to analyzing odors is 40 times larger than that of a human," says Butlin. "Humans have around 5 million scent receptors dedicated to smell. Dogs have 350 million and can detect odors at parts per trillion. To put this into context, a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water: two Olympic-sized pools full."
According to LSHTM scientists, COVID-19 has a distinctive smell — a result of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds released by infected body cells, which give off an odor "fingerprint." Other studies, too, have revealed that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has a distinct olfactory signature, detectable in the urine, saliva, and sweat of infected individuals. Humans can't smell the disease in these fluids, but dogs can.
"Our research shows that the smell associated with COVID-19 is at least partly due to small and volatile chemicals that are produced by the virus growing in the body or the immune response to the virus or both," said Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at Durham University, whose team collaborated with LSHTM for the study. He added, "There is also a further possibility that dogs can actually smell the virus, which is incredible given how small viruses are."
In April this year, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and collaborators published a similar study in the scientific journal PLOS One, revealing that detection dogs could successfully discriminate between urine samples of infected and uninfected individuals. The accuracy rate of canines in this study was 96%. Similarly, last December, French scientists found that dogs were 76-100% effective at identifying individuals with COVID-19 when presented with sweat samples.
Grandjean Dominique, a professor at France's National Veterinary School of Alfort, who led the French study, said that the researchers used two types of dogs — search and rescue dogs, as they can sniff sweat, and explosive detection dogs, because they're often used at airports to find bomb ingredients. Dogs may very well be as good as PCR tests, said Dominique, but the goal, he added, is not to replace these tests with canines.
In France, the government gave the green light to train hundreds of disease detection dogs and deploy them in airports. "They will act as mass pre-test, and only people who are positive will undergo a PCR test to check their level of infection and the kind of variant," says Dominique. He thinks the dogs will be able to decrease the amount of PCR testing and potentially save money.
Since the accuracy rate for bio-detection dogs is fairly high, scientists think they could prove to be a quick diagnosis and mass screening tool, especially at ports, airports, train stations, stadiums, and public gatherings. Countries like Finland, Thailand, UAE, Italy, Chile, India, Australia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, and Mexico are already training and deploying canines for COVID-19 detection. The dogs are trained to sniff the area around a person, and if they find the odor of COVID-19 they will sit or stand back from an individual as a signal that they've identified an infection.
While bio-detection dogs seem promising for cheap, large-volume screening, many of the studies that have been performed to date have been small and in controlled environments. The big question is whether this approach work on people in crowded airports, not just samples of shirts and socks in a lab.
"The next step is 'real world' testing where they [canines] are placed in airports to screen people and see how they perform," says Anna Durbin, professor of international health at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Testing in real airports with lots of passengers and competing scents will need to be done."
According to Butlin of Medical Detection Dogs, scalability could be a challenge. However, scientists don't intend to have a dog in every waiting room, detecting COVID-19 or other diseases, she said.
"Dogs are the most reliable bio sensors on the planet and they have proven time and time again that they can detect diseases as accurately, if not more so, than current technological diagnostics," said Butlin. "We are learning from them all the time and what their noses know will one day enable the creation an 'E-nose' that does the same job – imagine a day when your mobile phone can tell you that you are unwell."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”