The Herald tells us “Dogs have a 98 per cent reliability rate in sniffing out prostate cancer, according to newly-published research.” Usually, what’s misleading about this sort of conclusion is the base-rate problem: if a disease is rare, 98% accuracy isn’t good enough. Prostate cancer is different.
Blood tests for prostate cancer are controversial because prostate tumours are common in older men, but only some tumours progress to cause actual illness. By “controversial” I don’t mean the journalistic euphemism for “there are a few extremists who aren’t convinced”, but actually controversial. Groups of genuine experts, trying to do the best for patients, can come to very different conclusions on when testing is beneficial.
The real challenge in prostate cancer screening is to distinguish the tumours you don’t want to detect from the ones you really, really do want to detect. The real question for the canine sniffer test is how well it does on this classification.
Since the story doesn’t give the researchers’s names finding the actual research takes more effort than usual. When you track the paper down it turns out that the dogs managed almost perfect discrimination between men with prostate tumours and everyone else. They detected tumours that were advanced and being treated, low-risk tumours that had been picked up by blood tests, and even minor tumours found incidentally in treatment for prostate enlargement. Detection didn’t depend on tumour size, on stage of disease, on PSA levels, or basically anything. As the researchers observed “The independence of tumor volume and aggressiveness, and the dog detection rate is surprising.”
Surprising, but also disappointing. Assuming the detection rate is real — and they do seem to have taken precautions against the obvious biases — the performance of the dogs is extremely impressive. However, the 98% accuracy in distinguishing people with and without prostate tumours unavoidably translates into a much lower accuracy in distinguishing tumours you want to detect from those you don’t want to detect.