The Last of the (New) New Einsteins

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For the current issue of mental_floss magazine, Erik Vance profiled nine "New Einsteins" "“ visionaries who are discovering how to grow organs, peer into black holes, levitate food, cure plagues, and let blind men see. All week, Mr. Vance has been anointing additional New Einsteins here on mentalfloss.com. The final (new) New Einstein? A dog genius.

Who He/She Is: An unnamed doberman-border collie mix from Southern England

What He/She Did: No one knows the name of the first dog to sniff out a cancerous tumor. Since it was about 90 dog years ago, the clever pup has probably gone to the great fire hydrant in the sky by now. But the story was documented by Hywel Williams and Andres Pembroke in the British journal, Lancet, in 1989. Apparently the unnamed canine became obsessed with a mole on the leg of its owner "“ sniffing at it constantly, even when it was covered by clothes. Eventually, the dog got tired of having its prognosis ignored and simply decided to remove the mole with an ad hoc surgery involving its teeth.

When the owner finally went to Williams and Pembroke, she found out that the mole was cancerous and that the dog had probably saved her life.

Why You Should Start Idolizing Him/Her Immediately:

First of all, after succeeding where billions of dollars in federal funding have come up short, this creature likely went home and licked its own privates. That's got to be impressive in anyone's book.

Second of all, the discovery led to a whole new way to think about cancer detection. Scientists knew that tumors release all manner of exotic trace chemicals like alkanes and that they could theoretically be detected, say, on your breath if you looked carefully. But it never occurred to anyone that they might stink.

The notion that cancer has an odor has led scientists to start examining the some 3,000 chemicals that leave the body every day. Recently, scientists have confirmed that certain skin cancers can be detected in the air just above the tumor using devices called gas chromatography mass spectrometers. The analysis takes a day or two.

But when it comes analytic chemistry, the best in modern technology can just barely compete with the human nose, which can detect some of the more noxious chemicals in the parts per quadrillion (think a pinhead drop of liquid in a container the size of the Astrodome). Now consider that dogs can smell chemicals with at least 1,000 times that sensitivity.

Which brings us back to the Doberman mix. Today, dogs have detected nascent lung cancer and breast cancer with 88-99 percent sensitivity "“ theoretically more accurate than pap tests and mammograms. This has led to a number of clinics training cancer dogs to look for lung and bladder cancer. When you think about it, it's not all that different from the way we used to test for pregnancy by injecting frogs with women's urine.

So next time you go for a check up, don't be surprised if your clinician greets you by humping your leg.

Previous (New) New Einsteins: Marin Soljačić , Roland Fryer, Nathalie Cabrol, David Shaw

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November 21, 2008 - 7:30am
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