Ants’ sense of smell is so strong, they can sniff out cancer

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The ant cancer specialist will see you now.

Ants live in a smelly world. Some species are completely blind. Others rely heavily on scent, losing them as a pheromone trail travels in circles, exhausted and dead.

Ants have such a refined sense of smell, in fact, that researchers are now training them to detect the scent of human cancer cells.

A study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences highlights the sense of sharp ants, highlighting how animals with sharp noses – or, in the case of ants, sharp antennae – are used to quickly detect cancer. does And cheap. It is important because the earlier the cancer is detected, the better the chances of recovery.

“The results are very promising,” said Baptiste Piqueret, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany who studies animal behavior and co-wrote the paper. However, he added: “It is important to know that we are not using them as a routine way of detecting cancer.”

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Extending their pair of thin sensory appendages over their heads, insects detect and use chemical cues to do almost everything—find food, swarm prey, find colony mates, protect the young. This chemical communication helps ants build complex societies of queens and workers that work in sync with scent, and scientists call some colonies “super-organisms.”

For his study, Piqueret’s team transplanted parts of a human breast cancer tumor onto mice and trained 35 ants to associate urine with sugar in the cancer-bearing mice. Silkworms placed in a petri dish (Formica fusca) spent significantly more time near the tubes with urine from “sick” rats compared with urine from healthy ones.

“The study is well conceived and carried out,” said Federica Piron, an assistant professor at the University of Milan who was not involved in the ant research but has conducted similar tests on dogs’ sense of smell.

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Pickeret has been fascinated by ants since childhood with ants in his parents’ garden in the French countryside. “I’ve always loved ants,” he said, “watching them, playing with them,” he said.

The way we diagnose cancer today—taking blood, taking biopsies, and conducting colonoscopies—is often expensive and invasive. Animal behaviorists envision a world where doctors will one day tap species with subtle senses to help diagnose cancer quickly and cheaply.

Past research has shown that dogs can detect cancer in body odor. Mice can be trained to distinguish between healthy and tumor-bearing counterparts. Nematodes are attracted to certain organic compounds associated with cancer. Even neurons in fruit flies fire in the presence of certain cancer cells.

But ants, Piqueret suggested, may be superior to dogs and other animals that take time to train.

During the Covid lockdowns, he brought silk ants to his apartment outside Paris to continue his experiments. He chose the species because it has a good memory, is easy to train and doesn’t bite (at least not hard, Piqueret said).

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Researchers have a lot more work to do before ants or other animals can help diagnose real diseases. Scientists should test for confounding factors such as diet or age, Piron said. Piqueret’s team plans to test the ants’ ability to detect cancer markers in urine from real patients.

“For real confirmation, we have to wait for the next steps,” Pirrone said.

If ants are ever used in cancer screening, Piqueret wants to make one thing clear: No, they won’t want to crawl on you.

“There is no direct contact between ants and patients,” he said. “So it doesn’t matter if people are afraid of insects.”

He once had to assure someone aware of his research that picnicking ants were not a sign of cancer.

“Ants are not trained,” he said. “They just want to eat sugar.”


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