Home » Blog »

The hidden side of clinical trials

Watch the AllTrials TEDx talk on YouTube

Learn more

Evidence matters to the public

Join us on 1st November at Parliament to make the case

Learn more

Plant Science Panel

Insecticides, biofuels, GMOs …

Learn more

'The Ugly Truth'

by Tracey Brown, director of Sense About Science

Learn more



November 2011

Cancer sniffing dogs

Dr Shaun Treweek is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Dundee and Assistant Director of the Tayside Clinical Trials Unit, and leading a project to improve the way research information from clinical guidelines is presented to the public. Here he takes a closer look at a trial which suggested that dogs may have the ability to detect signals of cancer, and explains what can be learnt from this about the process of blinding in clinical trials.

Daily Mail article on the 16 November 2011 reported that dogs can detect cancer. Since the alternative is a biopsy, it’s easy to conclude that this is just one more reason to like Labradors. And as Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction pointed out; a dog’s got personality. Personality goes a long way.

Daisy, the dog featured in the article, correctly picked a vial of urine from a cancer patient from a selection of samples of healthy individuals five times. But did she pick the right vial because she can sniff cancer or because she picked up a sign from the trainer as to which vial was the one to pick? This is a problem common to many clinical trials: If participants know they are on the new treatment they might be more inclined to say they feel better, or have less pain. If clinicians know a patient is taking a new treatment, they might care for the patient differently to those receiving the comparison treatment.        

Blinding, where a participant doesn’t know which treatment he or she is receiving, or double-blinding, where the clinicians don’t know either, help to fix this problem. In Daisy’s sniff test, the trainer knows which vial Daisy should pick - in other words, the trainer was unblinded. Daisy doesn’t know so she is blind. It’s easy to imagine a more effective, double-blind test where the trainer doesn’t know either; the 12 vials could just have been numbered and given to him. In this case, if Daisy picked vial 6 each time we might begin to think that vial 6 was from a cancer patient, but we wouldn’t know this until we were ‘unblinded’ after the tests were complete and once the opportunity to influence the result has past. Crucially in a trial, that gives us more confidence in the result. 

In the double blinded sniff test, Daisy misses out on treats because noone knows whether she’s right or wrong until the end.  Maybe she’d settle for one really big biscuit?

Voice of Young Science USA, in London

Morgan Thompson is a graduate student at Harvard University and is outreach director of the graduate student organization, Science in the News, which promotes engagement of early career researchers in science education and communication. She is currently visiting the Sense About Science office with another USA researcher, Dr. Joanna Christodoulou from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to find out more about Sense About Science and Voice of Young Science (VoYS) before returning to the USA to help with plans to set up VoYS USA.

From arriving in London on Guy Fawkes Night to attending a parliamentary event, my first week in London with the Sense About Science team has been jam packed with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Joanna and I have been invited into the Sense About Science team for two weeks in order to get a sense of how the office functions and experience a VoYS workshop. While we’re here we’ll prepare a workshop guide that can be used by others to run ‘Standing up for Science’ media workshops, as part of ‘train the trainer’ initiatives.

Last Tuesday, I attended the Sense About Science Annual Reception at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. This year’s Standing up for Science award winner was comedian, Robin Ince. Robin himself represented the theme of the evening – stepping into new territory – having really taken a leap into the world of science and scientists in order to make the wonder of the natural world come alive and be more accessible to a broader public, as well as generally promote curiosity and critical thought. If you aren’t familiar with Robin’s work check out his Radio 4 show with Brian Cox ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’. Besides meeting Robin and hearing about his plans for an upcoming USA tour, I was able to discuss the plans for starting up VoYS USA with many Sense About Science supporters and VoYS members, new and old. Everyone was immensely excited about the idea of creating a VoYS USA network that can unite existing efforts and the enthusiasm of early career researchers in the States, overcoming unique challenges of vast geographic area and differences in political structures.

Then on Wednesday we were off to Parliament to attend a Libel Reform Campaign event. The Libel Reform Campaign is run by Sense About Science, English PEN, and Index on Censorship and the meeting was hosted by Dr Julian Huppert MP. The event, chaired by Dr Evan Harris, brought together the voices of many supporters of the campaign including, libel defendants Dr Simon Singh and Dr Peter Wilmshurst, Which?, Global Witness, Citizens Advice, Mumsnet, Nature, Facebook, AOL, the Publishers Association and Liberty. The message of the day was a rallying cry to redouble libel reform efforts to get the issue on the parliament’s legislative agenda for next year and many interested parties turned out to hear it. A huge influx of parliamentarians entered the room as the event began, blocking up the door since the room was already full to capacity. A great turnout for an interdisciplinary effort that has already had tremendous success raising government awareness of the issue and influencing the outcome of the Joint Scrutiny Committee’s report on a proposed defamation bill. Read more about libel reform and how Sense About Science is supporting the cause.

We have another whole week here in the UK! This week, I will head off to Glasgow with Julia and Victoria for a VoYS ‘Standing up for Science’ workshop (the first Sense About Science workshop to ever be held in Glasgow!). Check out more about the workshop here.