MANATEE -- With their long, soft ears, intelligence and small to medium size, beagles like Charlie Brown's pet, "Snoopy," from the comic strip "Peanuts" are a cuddly choice for someone looking for a pet.
But hidden beneath that cute exterior is another asset that few prospective owners may realize.
Beagles have one of the highest developed senses of smell in the dog world, derived from their breeding for tracking rabbits and other small game.
It is precisely for their exceptional olfactory talents that a Myakka City woman has put down a deposit on five beagle puppies from a Tampa area breeder.
Heather Junqueira, 43, has laid claim to the puppies, who will be born on Jan. 10, because she wants to train them to be sniff out cancer. Junqueira started BioScent K9, a non-profit organization dedicated to using canine scent detection to develop a non-invasive way of screening for cancer and other life threatening diseases.
A cancer-detecting canine is not a new idea or one without merit, said Dr. Dwight Fitch, a radiation oncologist at 21st Century oncology, a local cancer treatment center.
"I have heard of it," Fitch said. "It's been going on a couple of years. It's kind of on the edge of a new wave of early cancer detection. You can have these dogs that screen urine or breath and can detect things based on certain smells that cancer cells give off. I don't think this is ready for prime time, but it is a very interesting concept. I think it could be created for cheap mass screenings."
On the surface, Junqueira might seem an unlikely candidate to be the founder of an organization based on dogs sniffing out cancer.
She is not a practicing physician. Her husband is Gilberto Junqueira, a professional polo player from Brazil and the couple own and run the Pomello Polo Club at 25424 83rd Ave. E. Myakka City.
"I lost my dad to cancer," Junqueira explained last week. "Had they found it earlier he would still be here. I don't see why people should wait to have the opportunity for the cancer to be found. If a dog's nose can do it, why not?"
Junqueira has dual degrees, including one from the University of Louisville in sports medicine and one from St. Petersburg College in veterinarian technical nursing. She has been a breeding manager at Southeastern Guide
Dogs in Palmetto.
"I have always loved animals. I went to vet tech school and got really interested in medical research," Junqueira said. "After I worked at Southeastern Guide Dogs I took time off and started a family. But I recently have started doing research on how dogs can detect cancer."
How it works
When we, humans, breathe out, we exhale a breath condensate and inside that breath are chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, Junqueira said.
These volatile organic compounds have been detected in the breath of patients with breast, lung and ovarian cancer, three of the types she is interested in teaching her dogs to detect, Junqueira said.
While humans can't smell a tumor, a dog, with its higher number of olfactory cells than a human, can sense the compounds, Junqueira added.
"Studies have shown that dogs can also detect prostate cancer in urine samples," Junqueira said.
"We train the dogs to sit or shake when they find a positive sample using a system of rewards," Junqueira said.
Some research centers are working on ways to duplicate the dogs' skill and create an "electronic nose." Junqueira said. But, until then, Junqueira's dream is to set up a "turn key" facility in Myakka City where scientists can come in and do studies using dogs that she provides.
"My goal is to raise around $20,000 to get started building the facility with the kennels," Junqueira said. "I will start out with these five beagles. While all dogs can scent, beagles, historically, have more of the olfactory nerves than some breeds."
The BioScent K9 puppies will be raised by volunteers. When they reach eight months old Junqueira will begin doing scent training with them. But they won't live at the kennels.
"The dogs might come here to the kennels four days a week then go home to their families," Junqueira. "It's kind of like a dog with a job."
It's also easier to get volunteers to raise beagles, Junqueira said.
Fundraiser for the cause
Junqueira is hosting a "Boots & BBQ Bash" to raise money for BioScene K9. The event is 3-11 p.m. Jan. 17 at the Pomello Polo Club, 25424 83rd. Ave. E., Myakka City.
The event includes a polo exhibition at 3 p.m., a 5 p.m. cocktail hour, a 6 p.m. dinner created by Polo Grill, 7:30 p.m. entertainment by Party Pro DJs with dancing and drinks and a 9:30 p.m. live auction. A single pass is $100. Business sponsor passes are available as well.
To purchase tickets, email Junqueira at email@example.com or for more information about scent training call her at 941-225-5042.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or via Twitter@RichardDymond.