The mayor of a small Japanese town with high rates of stomach cancer among its residents has turned to a sniffer dog research programme to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of health check-ups. Facing the challenge of improving early cancer detection rates in Kaneyama, a town with 6,000 residents in the northeast of Japan, Mayor Hiroshi Suzuki reached out for professional help. Knowing his town had among Japan’s highest fatality rates due to stomach cancer, Suzuki consulted Masao Miyashita, a medical school professor who visited the town last year, and received a proposal to take part in a research programme in which dogs are used to sniff out cancer from test samples. At no cost to residents, the Yamagata Prefecture town sends frozen urine samples to Miyashita at the Nippon Medical School Chiba Hokusoh Hospital in Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo. The hospital then has the samples tested at a facility in the prefecture where dogs are trained for the purpose. The substances emitted by cancer cells which allow the dogs to sniff out the disease are unknown, as is how the dogs know what they are detecting. “In our research so far, cancer detection dogs have been able to find [signs of] cancer with an accuracy of nearly 100 per cent,” said Miyashita. There are only five dogs trained to work as cancer detection dogs in Japan, according to St Sugar Japan which operates the training facility. It costs about 5 million yen (US$45,000) to train each dog.