The ants’ sense of smell is so strong that they can smell the cancerThank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
A study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences highlights the keen sense of ants and highlights how we may one day use animals with sharp noses – or, in the case of ants, animals with sharp antennae – to quickly detect tumors and cheap. This is important because the earlier the cancer is detected, the better the chances of recovery.
“The results are very promising,” said Baptiste Piquere, a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany who studies animal behavior and co-authored the paper. However, he added: “It is important to know that we are far from using them as a routine way of detecting cancer.”
Extending their pair of thin sensory appendages on top of their heads, insects detect and use chemical signals to do almost everything—find food, accumulate prey, spot colony mates, protect young. This chemical communication helps ants build complex societies of queens and workers that work so synchronously with smell that scientists call some colonies “superorganisms.”
For their study, Piquere’s team grafted pieces of human breast cancer tumor onto mice and trained 35 ants to associate urine from tumor-bearing rodents with sugar. Placed in a petri dish, silkworms (Formica fusca) spent significantly more time near tubes of urine from “sick” mice compared to urine from healthy ones.
“The study was well thought out and well conducted,” said Federica Pirone, an associate professor at the University of Milan, who was not involved in the ant study but has conducted similar research on the olfactory ability of dogs.
Piquere has been fascinated by ants since playing with them as a child in his parents’ garden in the French countryside. “I’ve always loved ants,” he said, “watching them, playing with them.”
The way we diagnose cancer today—by drawing blood, taking biopsies, and performing colonoscopies—is often expensive and invasive. Animal behaviorists envision a world where doctors will one day touch species with keen senses to help detect tumors quickly and cheaply.
Dogs can smell the presence of cancer through body odor, previous research suggests. Mice can be trained to distinguish between healthy and tumor-bearing littermates. Nematodes are attracted to certain organic compounds associated with cancer. Even fruit fly neurons fire up in the presence of certain cancer cells.
But ants, Piquere suggested, may have an advantage over dogs and other animals that take a long time to train.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, 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, Pikere said).
Researchers need to do a lot more work before ants or other animals can help make an actual diagnosis. Scientists should test for confounding factors such as diet or age, Pirone said. Piquere’s team plans to test the ants’ ability to sniff out cancer markers in urine from actual patients.
“To have real confirmations, we have to wait for the next steps,” Pirone said.
If ants are ever used in cancer screening, Piqueret wants to make one thing clear: No, they won’t need to crawl on you.
“There will be no direct contact between the ants and the patients,” he said. “So even if people are afraid of insects, that’s fine.”
He once had to assure someone familiar with his research that ants swarming a picnic were not a sign of cancer.
“The ants were not trained,” he said. “They just want to eat sugar.”
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