Meet Blat: The Barcelona dog that can detect lung cancer from sniffing a person’s breath

Every dog owner will tell you that their four-legged friend is brimming with special qualities. But in the case of this labrador-cross, it wouldn’t be empty boast.

Meet Blat: The Barcelona dog that can detect lung cancer from sniffing a person’s breath
Blat and his owner (and trainer) Ingrid Ramón. Photo: Ingrid Ramón

For Blat is a pioneering dog with a powerful nose. He is one of just a handful of canines in the world – and the only one in Spain – that has been trained to detect lung cancer.

And he can do so from just a whiff of the breath of someone suspected of having the disease.

According to a study published in the European Journal of Cardio-Thoracic Surgery, Blat had a success rate of 95 percent in detecting cases of lung cancer and was even able to do so in very early stages – identifying cancer when the tumour was a mere four millimeters in diameter.

“The dog seems able to pick up everything, even when the tumours are very small, it’s astonishing,” wrote Angela Guirao, co-author of the study which was carried out at Barcelona's Hospital Clinic.

“It’s basicially a game for Blat,” his owner and trainer Ingrid Ramón, who adopted him at eleven months when he needed rehoming, told The Local.

“I recognized him as a labrador retreiver mixed with an American Staffordshire pit bull and that is a cross that makes for easy training. He was a little hooligan because he hadn’t been trained properly but I saw that he had great potential and took him on.”

After months of training, Blat, now three-a-half years old, can sniff breath samples – which have been hermetically sealed and are then opened and placed within a wooden box with a hole to amplify the scent.

Within seconds the dog can detect lung cancer and indicate it by sitting next to the sample.

Watch Blat identify cancer samples:

“He’s been trained to pick up the sample through positive reinforcement for which he gets a treat.”

”Blat’s results indicate that there are molecules that are specific to lung cancers and that some of these molecules are detectable in the exhaled air,” explained Laureano Molins, a thoracic surgeon at Hospital Clinic and co-author of trial.

“These are spectacular results,” said Molins explaining the need to improve early diagnosis as “75 percent of lung cancer cases are diagnosed when the disease is already advanced.”

However, the study's ultimate goal is not to introduce teams of diagnostic dogs in oncology but rather to aid development of a test that can identify the molecules specific to certain types of cancer.

“At the moment the olfactory skills of a dog are superior to any technology we have today,” said Molins. “Our goal now is to identify the molecules (detected by Blat) and develop a diagnostic test that acts as an electronic nose.”

But although Blat is a pioneer, he is in good company as his owner runs Argus Detection Dogs, which trains dogs to specifically indentify types of illness.

Among those trained by Ramón are dogs which can detect hypoglycemia – when blood sugar drops to a dangerous level – in Diabetes sufferers, as well as dogs that can warn of an imminent attack in those with epilepsy.

She also has trained dogs who accompany children with autism or reduced mobility.

“Blat is incredibly special. He is a real sweetheart and loves people” boasts Ramón, but she admits that's not just on account of his skilfull nostrils.  

“Honestly, most dogs have the same olfactory capability and can be trained like this. What makes Blat exceptional is  his willingness to work. He is a mix of Labrador and American pitbull and that means he loves to eat, he loves to play and he has incredible energy.”


How Spain could stamp out smoking

A fifth of Spain's population smokes on a daily basis. With such high numbers, here's how the country's pulmonologists propose to get smokers to quit.

Spain plans to get people to quit smoking
How Spain plans to get people to stop smoking. Photo: Khalil MAZRAAWI / AFP

For many outsiders, Spain is a nation of smokers. 

The stats from Spain’s Ministry of Health show that 23.3 percent of men smoke every day in Spain, compared with 16.4 percent of women.

For both males and females, the highest number of smokers are aged between 25 and 34, meaning that it’s the younger population who are smoking slightly more than the older generations. 

Spain’s pulmonologists are now pushing for the country’s tobacco laws to be tightened, claiming that reform is needed after the last legislation was approved a decade ago.

READ ALSO: Spain warns against smoking and vaping in public to avoid Covid infections

Why is smoking such a problem in Spain and what is being done about it?

The latest stats from the Spanish Ministry of Health show that lung cancer, often caused by smoking, is the third most frequently diagnosed cancer in Spain, with 29,549 cases diagnosed so far in 2021.

Given these high figures Spain’s Spanish Society of Pulmonology and Thoracic Surgery (SEPAR) has proposed five measures to help get people to stop smoking.

SEPAR points out that every time anti-smoking legislation is reformed and things for smokers made more difficult, the prevalence of smoking decreases.  

Smoking on terraces was banned in some regions during the pandemic. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP
  • Price of tobacco to rise in 2022

The first point on their list is to raise the price of tobacco, which must cover all forms, from cigarettes to cigars, through to rolling tobacco, and electronic cigarettes.  

This first measure may soon become a reality as the Spanish government has already predicted that the price of tobacco will rise in 2022, after several years of stagnation.  

It is expected that tobacco will be responsible for almost a third of all special taxes received in 2022, equating to €21.8 billion.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “cheap tobacco” in Spain guarantees “a percentage of smokers above 30 percent”.

In Spain, the price of a pack of tobacco is around €5, which is much cheaper than in other countries. In Australia for example, a pack of tobacco costs around €22, and in the United Kingdom and France, each pack of tobacco costs around €12.4 and €10.5, respectively.

According to Dr. Carlos A. Jiménez Ruiz, pulmonologist and president of the society, the current anti-smoking law has “some deficiencies” that need to be addressed in order to develop legislation that is more effective and efficient, especially with regard to the prevention of tobacco consumption in young people, but also in helping smokers to stop smoking and in protecting the health of non-smokers. 

READ ALSO – Maps: Which beaches in Spain have banned smoking?

Besides increasing the cost of tobacco SEPAR proposes four other measures to get Spain to quit smoking. These include:

  • Banning the consumption of tobacco in public spaces, even outdoors
    During the pandemic, several regions approved a regulation to prohibit smoking on terraces. SEPAR proposes that smoking be prohibited not only in spaces such as terraces but also in sports stadiums, beaches, parks and bullrings, and that fines should be imposed for those who do not comply.

  • Establish generic packaging
    SEPAR also wants Spain to introduce generic packaging, which means no logos and images of the tobacco companies. This measure has also proven to lower the sales of tobacco in countries where it has been implemented, such as Australia and New Zealand. According to the latest statistics from the Australian National Drug Strategy Household Survey around 11.6 percent of adults in Australia smoke daily. 

  • The regulation of other smoking devices
    Despite the fact that all products that burn tobacco such as cigarettes are already regulated, SEPAR believes that it is also necessary to regulate the sale, consumption and advertising of electronic cigarettes. This is because e-cigarettes have become particularly popular among young people. 

  • Promote help for those seeking to quit smoking
    The last proposal is the creation and development of special units in public health departments to help people to stop smoking and to put more funds towards these programmes. 

How does Spain compare with other European countries when it comes to smoking?

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while Spain does have a high number of smokers there are still several European countries that have more. The European countries with the highest number of smokers are Greece, Bulgaria and Hungary.

The latest European survey from 2020 shows that 42 percent of Greeks claim to be smokers, which is only slightly above Spain. 

On the other side, the European countries with the lowest number of smokers are mainly Nordic countries, such as Sweden, Finland, Iceland and Norway.