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What’s that smell? Ants can sniff out cancer, study shows

New research revealed that ants can be rapidly trained — requiring only a few trials to learn, memorize and detect cancers through urine samples

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A pair of Texas leaf cutter ants carry leaves down a branch in a display at the Houston Zoo’s new bug house.

A pair of Texas leaf cutter ants carry leaves down a branch in a display at the Houston Zoo’s new bug house Friday, May 23, 2014, in Houston. New research has revealed that ants can be rapidly trained to learn, memorize and detect cancers through urine samples.

Pat Sullivan, Associated Press

Humans and many animals rely on their eyes while other species have a keen sense of smell to guide them around the world. Ants are one of the experts with odor. In fact, a recent study shows that these insects can be trained to detect the smell of cancer cells in humans.

Published in the journal iScience, the research revealed that ants can be rapidly trained — requiring only a few trials to learn, memorize and detect cancer.

What happened in the study?

Researchers exposed around 70 black-colored ants, known as Formica fusca, to urine samples of mice with and without tumors. The goal was to train the tiny insects to associate the tumor-bearing smell with sugar.

The study noted that future trials will need to be conducted on other ant species and while using human specimens.

The ants can make room for early detection of cancer in a way that is noninvasive, inexpensive and efficient, the study stated. The disease alters the metabolism, generating unique patterns of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which are used as markers.

“The results are very promising,” Baptiste Piqueret, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany who studies animal behavior and co-wrote the paper, told The Washington Post.

“It’s important to know that we are far from using them as a daily way to detect cancer,” he added.

Hurdles in cancer detection

Present technology diagnoses cancer by drawing blood, and through biopsies and colonoscopies — procedures that can be costly.

Cancers of the bladder, breast or prostate can be detected through urine. Several other studies have already found that dogs are also well-suited for medical diagnoses, but training them using associative-learning techniques is expensive and time-consuming, taking as long as several months.