Ants can smell cancer through urine

Cancer remains the leading cause of death worldwide, with more than 19 million cases in 2020. The sooner it is detected, the greater the patient’s chances of recovery. However, current detection methods are invasive and expensive.

In the future, ants may turn the tables by acting as a new, much more accessible type of biodetector. Its powerful sense of smell can even replace sophisticated equipment, distinguishing subtle molecular differences in biological samples.

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Diagnosis of cancer in urine sample

A new study shows that this ability can detect cancer in urine samples, primarily in laboratory mice.

  • The researchers found that the ants can distinguish between cancerous and healthy cell samples by the smell.
  • The team trained two groups of ants (“Formica fusca”), known for their rapid learning and good memory, to distinguish the smell of the urine of a healthy mouse from that of a human cancerous tumor carrier using a reward made of sugar water.
  • It only took three training sessions for them to be able to discriminate odors.

Ants show the potential to become a fast, efficient, inexpensive and non-invasive tool for tumor detection

Baptiste Piqueret, ethologist at Sorbonne University

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After training, the ants spent more time looking for the reward and automatically provided a accurate sign of the presence or absence of cancer. The chemical analysis even revealed that the molecules in the urine of the cancer mice are indeed different. Also, the larger the tumor, the more different the odors.

However, the ants showed no difference in the ability to detect the presence of small or large tumors, that is, they sniff both in the same way.

While the results are promising, there is still much work to be done before real-world use in clinical settings, concludes the study recently published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

“Our method needs further validation using different tumor/cancer types and, more importantly, samples of human origin, before it is considered suitable as a routine test for cancer screening,” say the researchers.

Principal image: Tomas Vacek/Shutterstock

Via: Science Alert

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