You might have already heard about dogs sniffing out cancer. Now, it seems that some ants might also be able to differentiate cancerous cells from healthy cells in humans, thanks to their sense of smell. But more clinical tests must be carried out before these creepy crawlies could one day be used in clinical settings like hospitals. Could we one day use ants to help detect cancer? It might sound like a farfetched idea but it is currently being investigated by a team of researchers. This kind of approach could lead to a less invasive and less expensive alternative to current detection methods. Researchers from France’s CNRS, Université Sorbonne Paris Nord, Institut Curie and Inserm have identified a species of ants with a particularly well-developed sense of smell: the Formica fusca. Their research findings are published in the journal, iScience.
To conduct their research, the scientists performed tests with 36 ants. First, the specialists exposed the ants to the smell of a sample of cancerous human cells. This odor was then associated with a reward of sugar solution. In a second step, the researchers exposed the ants to two different odors. One was a new smell and the second was the smell of the cancerous cells. Once this test was successful, the researchers exposed the ants to different cancerous cells.
As such, the scientists found that “ants discriminate between cancerous and healthy cells and between two cancerous lines.” After training, Formica fusca ants are able to detect volatile organic compounds emitted by cancerous cells.
Before being used on a large scale, “the efficacy of this method must now be assessed using clinical trials on a human being,” points out CNRS in a news release. “But this first study shows that ants have high potential, are capable of learning very quickly, at lower cost, and are efficient.”
Could ants be more effective than dogs?
This isn’t the first time that scientists have used the animal sense of smell to locate cancerous cells. “Dogs’ noses are well suited for medical diagnosis and used for the detection of cancer-specific [volatile organic compounds],” the researchers explain. However, training them to do so requires several months. On the other hand, “insects can be easily reared in controlled conditions, they are inexpensive, they have a very well-developed olfactory system and hundreds of individuals can be conditioned with very few trials,” the researchers point out.
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