Jake Richardson March 11 2018

Dogs, Cancer and Medicine


Dogs are essentially domesticated wolves, the ‘taming’ and breeding of wolves to create many species of dogs started thousands of years ago. One advantage they have over us is being able to smell vastly better, so some modern scientists have used them in cancer research. In the first film below, dogs are shown helping researchers with an important chemical identification process.

This sequence of four films begins and ends with medical research. In between there is quite a visual feast, so get ready. You will be altered by watching each one, leading up to the longest film which delves into the most unexpected personal cancer story you may ever encounter.

The Smell Test
Directed and produced by Sarah Crespi and Nguyen Khoi Nguyen

The Smell Test

When was the last time you watched a short film about body odors? Katharine Prigge is a chemist who studies them. Dogs come into play because of the notion that they can detect cancer in humans by detecting odors. Prigge in particular uses dogs in the lab to try to identify biomarkers for ovarian cancer. She is collaborating with a physicist who can design nano devices to detect volatile chemicals which are also cancer biomarkers. Based on the research working with dogs, the goal is to one day have a handheld device in medical clinics to help diagnose patients with ovarian cancer much earlier to help save lives.

Directed by Amy Congdon, Ann-Kristin Abel, and Jenny Lee


From nano devices for cancer detection we go to a biological computer which can monitor glucose levels and cancerous cells. Directors Amy Congdon, Ann-Kristin Abel, and Jenny Lee created a mind-blowing 2-minute film about the future of personalized medicine. Data from the bio computer can be sent for analysis, which in turn can be used as the basis for 3-D printed medicines tailored to that individual’s healthcare needs.

La Therapie Photodynamique
Directed by Clement Dupont and Salvo Manzone

Another short documentary provides very vivid imagery to depict a new type of brain cancer treatment being used in France. Directors Clement Dupont and Salvo Manzone employ humor, rich colors and vegetables to describe the treatment process, including the mechanisms and strategy.

You just might forget you are watching a film about brain cancer, and enjoy yourself almost as much as seeing a more typical ‘escapist’ form of entertainment. For such potentially disturbing subject matter, this one is a marvel.

Way of All Flesh
Directed by Adam Curtis

Way of All Flesh

This much longer documentary explores the history of cancer research. Would it be possible to grow human cells outside the body to study them? Dr. George Gey isolated cells from a cervical sample taken from patient Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Using his own techniques, he was able to keep these cells alive outside the human body and grow more of them. Eventually, he shared them with other scientists for further research. These cells do not die out after a certain number of cell divisions, so they have been used for medical researchers for decades. In fact, they figured prominently in research that led to the development of the polio vaccine, and they remain part of medical research today. HeLa, which is named after Henrietta, was the first human cell line. Some of these cells were actually sent into space!

Eventually, scientists were able to grow other cell lines and from a variety of sources. One cell biologist used the cells from his newborn daughter’s amnion. At one point, there was a theory that cancer was caused by a virus, and a very vigorous effort called the War on Cancer was launched, but the cell lines researchers were using were contaminated by HeLa cells so their research was thrown way off, and so the war failed. What happened next? Watch this very gripping film about medical research history to find out.

About the author

Jake Richardson has enjoyed the outdoors and nature since he was 6-years-old in the woods of central Illinois and now lives in California not far from the John Muir house.