PARIS, 27 Jan 2023:
A team of French scientists is on a quest to teach ants how to sniff out the early stages of cancer in humans and have claimed in a recent study that the tiny insects have already started to demonstrate a 20% success rate.
Although the experiments are in the early stages and require more research, the results “are promising,” the study’s lead Baptiste Piqueret said.
The potential for ants to become a cheap bio-detector of human cancer cells by training them to recognise certain scents, a process known as olfactory conditioning, was set out in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Science on Wednesday.
Tumour cells produce a volatile organic compound (VOC) that can be used as a biomarker for cancer. Animals such as dogs have been trained to detect VOCs in cell samples or body odour but this ability is not restricted to the four-legged realm, as the scientists have shown.
Among insects, ants – especially the species Formica fusca, more commonly known as a dusty ant – have demonstrated an acute sense of smell and are quick learners, the researchers said.
Scientists taught the ants to differentiate between urine samples taken from healthy mice and mice inserted with human breast cancer tissue.
“After training, they spend approximately 20% more time in the vicinity of the learned odour than beside the other stimulus,” the study said, adding that the insects reached such a level of accuracy after just three conditioning trials.
“Chemical analyses confirmed that the presence of the tumour changed the urine odour, supporting the behavioural results.
“Our study demonstrates that ants reliably detect tumour cues in mice urine and have the potential to act as efficient and inexpensive cancer bio-detectors.”