You may have heard of dogs that smell cancer. However, some ants also seem to be able to distinguish between cancerous cells and healthy cells in humans, thanks to their sense of smell. But more clinical testing must be done before these fearsome creatures can be used in clinical settings such as hospitals. Could we someday use ants to help detect cancer? This may seem like a far-fetched idea, but it is currently being studied by a team of researchers. This type of approach may lead to a less invasive and less expensive alternative to current detection methods. Researchers from CNRS, Sorbonne University Paris Nord, Institut Curie and Inserm have identified a species of ant with a particularly strong sense of smell: Formica fusca. The results of their research were published in the journal iScience.
To conduct their research, scientists conducted tests on 36 ants. First, the specialists exposed the ants to the scent of a sample of human cancer cells. This smell was then associated with the reward of a sugar solution. Next, the researchers exposed the ants to two different scents. The first was a fresh smell and the second was the smell of cancer cells. Once this test was successful, the researchers exposed the ants to various cancer cells.
Thus, scientists discovered that “ants distinguish between cancerous cells and healthy cells and between two cancerous strains.” After training, Formica fusca ants are able to detect the VOCs released by the cancer cells.
Before it is widely used, “the efficacy of this method must now be evaluated using human clinical trials,” CNRS specifies in a press release. “But this first study shows that ants have great potential, and are able to learn very quickly, at lower cost, and efficiently.”
Could ants be more efficient than dogs?
This isn’t the first time scientists have used animals’ sense of smell to identify cancer cells. Dog noses are well suited for medical diagnosis and are used to detect certain types of cancer [volatile organic compounds]However, their professional training requires several months. On the other hand, “insects can be easily reared under controlled conditions, they are inexpensive, have a highly developed olfactory system and hundreds of individuals can be adapted with very few experiments,” explained the researchers. The researchers confirmed.
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