FEB 07, 2023 1:00 PM PST

Training insects to detect cancer

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

When it comes to detecting cancer, earlier is better. In fact, research overwhelmingly notes that earlier detection can lead to improved responses to treatment and potential improvement in quality of life and life expectancy.

A variety of tools exist that are designed to detect cancer, including a range of blood tests and imaging technologies. While these tools are becoming more advanced and precise each day, there’s an underlying limitation they just can’t shake: they are often expensive and, in some cases, quite invasive. But given the importance of early cancer detection, finding better ways to detect cancer is more important than ever.

A team of researchers in France may have found a solution in a very unexpected source: ants.

That’s right: the tiny creatures that can carry several times their weight may be able to detect and diagnose cancer in humans. Researchers report the results of a recent proof-of-concept study in a recent article published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Specifically, researchers found that ants were able to tell the difference between mice that had cancer and mice that did not simply by smelling their urine.

But ants don’t smell in the way that humans might, though they have a highly attuned away of detecting chemicals, which offers them a unique way of smelling. Using their antennae, they can both detect and produce a range of smells that serve different purposes. This highly developed sense of smell gives ants, as well as other types of insects and animals, the ability to detect odors that are imperceptible to humans.

So what “smell” is cancer giving off that ants are detecting? According to the study, ants were able to detect what are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are compounds created when cells perform metabolic functions. Cancer cells, in particular, produce a lot of VOCs due to their rapid growth. Previous research has shown that other types of animals may also be able to detect these specific compounds.

Though researchers emphasize that they are still quite a way from using ants (or ant-inspired tools) in a clinical setting, these results suggest a potential avenue for cancer detection techniques, highlighting what we can learn from the animal kingdom.

Sources: Smithsonian; Proceedings of the Royal Society B

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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