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Penn Vet Launches COVID-19 Canine Scent Detection Study

By Martin Hackett Published: Apr 28, 2020
Lucy conducts scent detection training at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Canine surveillance could play key role as United States re-opens, anticipates possible second wave amid virus fears

April 28, 2020, PHILADELPHIA – A pilot training program utilizing scent detection dogs to discriminate between samples from COVID-19 positive and COVID-19 negative patients is the focus of a new research initiative at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet).

With up to 300 million smell receptors – compared to six million in humans – dogs are uniquely positioned to aid in disease detection. This pioneering study – that will explore the sensitivity and specificity of scent – sets the stage for dogs to be a force multiplier in the mission to detect COVID-19, particularly among asymptomatic patients, or hospital or business environments where testing is most challenging. Preliminary screening of live humans by trained dogs could begin as early as July.

The study is backed in part by the new Penn Vet COVID-19 Research Innovation Fund. The fund, provided with critical start-up support through a generous gift from Vernon and Shirley Hill, will bolster Penn Vet’s rapidly expanding research and response program to fight the novel coronavirus.

Penn Vet will initially begin the study with eight dogs to perform this precise detection work. Over the course of three weeks through a process called odor imprinting, the dogs will be exposed to COVID-19 positive saliva and urine samples in a laboratory setting. Once the dogs learn the odor, the investigators will document that the dogs can discriminate between COVID-19 positive and COVID-19 negative samples in a laboratory setting, establishing the platform for testing to determine if the dogs can identify COVID-19 infected people. The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Chemical Biological Center will be lending their expertise during the study as well.

Dr. Cynthia M. Otto, Penn Vet
Dr. Cynthia Otto

“Scent detection dogs can accurately detect low concentrations of volatile organic compounds, otherwise known as VOCs, associated with various diseases such as ovarian cancer, bacterial infections, and nasal tumors. These VOCs are present in human blood, saliva, urine or breath,” said Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, professor of Working Dog Sciences and Sports Medicine and director of Penn Vet’s Working Dog Center. “The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial. This study will harness the dog’s extraordinary ability to support the nation’s COVID-19 surveillance systems, with the goal of reducing community spread.”

Otto will lead a group of multi-disciplinary researchers from across the University of Pennsylvania. Susan Weiss, PhD, and Ian Frank, MD, both from the Penn Center for Research on Coronavirus and Other Emerging Pathogens and the Perelman School of Medicine, will lead the protocols to collect samples from adult patients being screened at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Audrey Odom John, MD, PhD, from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, will collect samples from children screened at that facility. Richard Berk, PhD, from Penn Arts and Sciences, will assist in research study design and analysis of canine performance data.

“Dogs and humans, perfect together as man’s best friend, through Penn Vet in partnership with the Perelman School of Medicine and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, provide a new solution to COVID-19,” said Vernon Hill. “Shirley and I, and Sir Duffield our beloved Yorkshire Terrier, are again proud to support Penn Vet.”

“This pilot study could not be more emblematic of Penn Vet’s unparalleled contributions to public health,” said Andrew M. Hoffman, DVM, DVSc, Gilbert S. Kahn Dean of Veterinary Medicine. “What we do, and how we do it is relevant now more than ever before. The collaboration between Penn Vet, the School of Medicine, the School of Arts and Sciences, and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, are critical to success. I’m grateful for Vernon and Shirley Hill’s longstanding generosity that will allow us to swiftly accelerate our diagnostic, detection and surveillance capabilities to fight COVID-19.”

Penn Vet’s COVID-19 Research Innovation Fund is raising funds to support Penn Vet’s research laboratories that are already tackling problems associated with COVID. Ronald Harty, PhD, professor of Pathobiology and Microbiology, is using his lifetime expertise investigating Ebola, Marsburg, and Lassa Fever, to understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus leaves cells and spreads to other cells. Andrew Vaughan, PhD, assistant professor of Biomedical Sciences, is leveraging his work examining virally-induced lung injury to understand how the SARS-CoV-2 promotes disease, and in collaboration with Montserrat Anguera, PhD, associate professor of Biomedical Sciences, is investigating the factors that contribute to sex bias in the development of more severe COVID disease. Importantly, Penn Vet’s COVID-19 Research Innovation Fund will not only help these projects but will also promote an expansion of the number of Penn Vet scientists focusing on new ways to conquer SARS-CoV2.  

“Penn Vet is a key part of the biomedical community here at the University of Pennsylvania. We are leveraging our unique and collective expertise in pathogen-related research, infectious disease, and translational medicine to fight this pandemic, said Phillip Scott, PhD, vice dean for Research and Academic Resources. “Penn Vet’s COVID-19 Research Innovation Fund is affording us the agility to make immediate and significant strides toward solving this public health emergency.”

About Penn Vet

Ranked among the top ten veterinary schools worldwide, the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet) is a global leader in veterinary education, research, and clinical care. Founded in 1884, Penn Vet is the first veterinary school developed in association with a medical school. The school is a proud member of the One Health initiative, linking human, animal, and environmental health.

Penn Vet serves a diverse population of animals at its two campuses, which include extensive diagnostic and research laboratories. Ryan Hospital in Philadelphia provides care for dogs, cats, and other domestic/companion animals, handling more than 34,600 patient visits a year. New Bolton Center, Penn Vet’s large-animal hospital on nearly 700 acres in rural Kennett Square, PA, cares for horses and livestock/farm animals. The hospital handles more than 6,200 patient visits a year, while our Field Services have gone out on more than 5,500 farm service calls, treating some 18,700 patients at local farms. In addition, New Bolton Center’s campus includes a swine center, working dairy, and poultry unit that provide valuable research for the agriculture industry.

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