While using dogs to detect the presence of cancer in cells is a well-known concept, new research has shown that ants can also do the same. Scientists have now found that ants can detect the scent of cancer in urine, Washington Post reported. Though ants don’t have noses, they have an incredible sense of smell, thanks to the abundance of olfactory receptors on their antennae.
Notably, tumours that are cancerous release distinctive versions of chemicals called volatile organic compounds that often show up in bodily fluids such as sweat and urine. Ants can sniff out those compounds in urine.
In these findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, researchers said these insects could be used as a cost-effective way to identify cancers in patients.
For the study, the research team grafted pieces of a human breast-cancer tumour onto mice. They then exposed 35 ants belonging to the species known as Formica fusca to urine samples from mice with, and without, tumours.
The researchers trained the ants to associate the smell of tumours with a reward by placing a drop of sugar water in front of the urine from animals with cancer. The ants spent significantly more time around the urine of cancerous mice than that of healthy mice.
Researchers now want to take it a step further and see if the ants can do the same for human urine. They also noted that ants have an edge over dogs and other animals because the latter are time-consuming to train. While dogs can take around six months to train, it took only 10 minutes and three training rounds, to lock in the ants’ smell association for the aforementioned study.
Study author Professor Patrizia d’Ettorre, of Sorbonne Paris Nord University in Paris, France, told PA news agency, “Ants can be used as bio-detectors to discriminate healthy individuals from tumour-bearing ones. They are easy to train, learn fast, are very efficient and are not expensive to keep.”
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