Research Shows Ants Can Detect the Smell of Cancer

A new study shows that ants are able to detect the scent of cancer in urine, suggesting that these tiny creatures can be used as bio-detectors to track people with tumors among healthy people.

Sorbonne experts have, for the first time, found ants to have this ability although it was earlier discovered that several types of cancer alter the smell of urine.

Study author Prof Patrizia d’Ettorre of Sorbonne Paris Nord University in Paris, France says that ants can be used as bio-detectors to discriminate healthy individuals from tumor-bearing ones.

Prof d’Ettorre and her colleagues have based this research on her previous study in which they discovered ants are able to “sniff out” laboratory-grown human cancer cells. Since they’re easy to train, learn fast, and are very efficient, the insects could be used as a cost-effective way to identify cancers in patients.

Starting from the fact that ants have a very sensitive olfactory system, the researchers exposed for the current study 70 ants (Formica fusca), also called silky ants, to urine from mice with and without tumors.

Using associative learning as a training method to associate a given odor – the one of cancer – with a reward, Prof d’Ettorre and her fellow researchers needed three trials to train the ants to tell the difference between the urine odor of healthy mice from that of mice with tumors.

Noting that this is more similar to a real-life situation than using cultured cancer cells, researchers said they were actually surprised by how efficient and reliable the insects are and they now want to establish if the ants can do the same with human urine.

The results of their study were published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

As previous studies have shown, dogs can also be trained to detect cancer through the smell of urine and there are also electronic devices that can detect certain types of cancer – like bladder, breast, or prostate cancer- from urine samples.

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