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Bear startup aids canine detection of coronavirus

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A dog smells a “training aid” held in a TADD for a scent detection exercise . | PHOTO COURTESY SCIK9

BEAR SciK9, a startup product development company, has launched a surprising product to aid in the fight against coronavirus: a device to safely train dogs to detect the virus.

SciK9 was founded this year by senior scientists with Excet Inc., a Virginia-based scientific and engineering firm geared toward federal agencies, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company released its Training Aid Delivery Device (TADD), a glass container with a thin filter membrane held in place by a cap. The TADD makes it safe for dogs to be trained to smell hazardous materials, like explosives, fentanyl and even the coronavirus.

“The membrane is porous, but it only allows the gas and the odors from the substance to be smelled. There’s no exposure to the actual substance,” SciK9 Chief Scientific Officer Michele Maughan told Delaware Business Times. “It’s amazing to see a project that has just started make a difference in studying and detecting coronavirus.”

The TADD was first developed in 2013 by Maughan and her colleagues as part of research for the U.S. Army’s military explosives community canine detection program at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Five years later, the device was improved so it could be handled without fear of breaking if dropped.

Dogs have a sharp sense of smell and have long been used by law enforcement agencies and the military to sniff out bombs and drugs. But recent research from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Dr. Cindy Otto has turned dogs’ super-sniffers to detect the subtle chemical difference between cancerous and healthy tissues.

Maughan, a University of Delaware alumna, knew Otto from her undergraduate studies and called to pitch a collaboration. Within one month, the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Chemical Biological Center reached a cooperative research agreement with UPenn to train dogs to detect COVID-19.

As for SciK9, they are awaiting on the patent for the TADD and Maughan sees potential for the invention’s several applications in the canine community, like in the search-and-rescue sector and invasive species detection.

“Before with search and rescue, the aids a dog would need is tissue or blood and that would include putting the aid in the water or burying it. The TADD would ensure that the aid does not get destroyed during the exercise,” she said. “There’s also cases where dogs can detect invasive species of snails, and the TADD would make sure it [the snails] would not get out.”

SciK9 was recently awarded $10,000 from the Innovation Fund of the Booz Allen Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to solving today’s social issues. The fledgling company was one of 3,000 applicants that applied and 21 winners that received nearly $1 million in grants.

With the grant funding, SciK9 will fund 250 TADDs for Otto’s continued research at UPenn.

“It’s amazing to see this is going really well and playing a role in coronavirus research,” Maughan said. “I was telling my daughter that a startup company is like a baby, you need to nurture it and take care of it. It’s not all sexy right now, but it’s exciting to see what happens next.

The UPenn Vet Working Dog Center is looking for patients who tested positive for COVID-19 to participate in a study to further canine detection of the virus. For more information, visit  https://www.vet.upenn.edu/research/centers-laboratories/center/penn-vet-working-dog-center.

By Katie Tabeling

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