Ants can sniff out cancer in humans, study shows
The next step is human trials
Ants have the unique ability to sniff our cancerous cells in human beings, with a new study suggesting the little critters could be integral to the future of cancer diagnosis.
Scientists with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) have revealed that Formica fusca, an ant species native to most of Europe, has a keen sense of smell.
Their research, which was published in the journal iScience, found that the insects could differentiate between cancerous cells and healthy ones. More clinical trials are expected in the future, but eventually, Formica fusca could be used in clinical settings, the team said.
Scientists took 36 ants and exposed them to cancerous human cells, which was then associated with a reward of sugar solution. Next, the ants were provided with two smell tests, the first was healthy cells and the second was cancerous.
Should the ants pick the cancer cells, scientists moved them onto the final smell test.
They found that "ants discriminate between cancerous and healthy cells and between two cancerous lines."
But before being used on mass, CNRS says the "efficacy of this method must now be assessed using clinical trials on a human being."
"But this first study shows that ants have high potential, are capable of learning very quickly, at lower cost, and are efficient."
The researchers believe that one day, Formica fusca could be better at sniffing out cancer cells than dogs.
"Dogs' noses are well suited for medical diagnosis and used for the detection of cancer-specific [volatile organic compounds]," the researchers explained. Training them can take up to a year, but insects "can be easily reared in controlled conditions."
The scientists continued: "They are inexpensive, they have a very well-developed olfactory system and hundreds of individuals can be conditioned with very few trials.
"Ants, therefore, represent a fast, efficient, inexpensive, and highly discriminant detection tool for detection of cancer cell volatiles.
"Our approach could potentially be adapted to a range of other complex odor detection tasks including the detection of narcotics, explosives, spoiled food, or other diseases, including malaria, infections, and diabetes.
"With regards to cancer detection, our research will now aim to widen the range of cancer-related odors that can be detected by ants, moving to the detection of body-emitted odors."
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