Scientists reveal in a new study paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences that ants can detect the aroma of multiple types of cancer, which alters the stench of urine.
Animal olfaction refers to their ability to smell. Numerous animals, including mammals and insects, employ this sensory ability to detect and identify odours in their surroundings for diverse goals, such as finding food, identifying predators, and locating mates.
As per Medical News Today, these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are emitted by cancer cells and can be utilized to diagnose the disease. Due to their great sense of smell, animals, including ants, can be trained to distinguish these VOCs.
Utilizing animals to detect cancer is a promising method for boosting early detection rates. Dogs, for instance, can be trained to detect cancer by smelling cell samples or body odor and detecting volatile organic compounds linked with cancer and its altered cell metabolism.
Ants, particularly Formica fusca, demonstrate exceptional learning abilities with respect to scents that are important to their surroundings. Ants do not have a sense of smell comparable to that of mammals, but their antennae have a large number of odor receptors, allowing them to detect diverse odors.
Ants are capable of forming a memory that lasts for several days after only a single training session. In addition, their memory recall is strong, as they may react appropriately to successive tests without a reward up to nine times.
In the current work, researchers trained seventy Formica fusca, a common ant species in the Northern Hemisphere, to distinguish between urine from healthy mice and urine from mice implanted with human cancer tumors.
Three training sessions were sufficient for the ants to reliably detect VOCs. These results show that ants have the potential to be employed as a low-cost and effective method of cancer detection. This discovery builds on the team’s prior work, in which they revealed that ants could recognize human cancer cells generated in the laboratory.
To detect cancer, the researchers examined urine samples from mice with human cancers growing within them. These mice, known as patient-derived xenograft mice, are a superior model for detecting cancer compared to cell cultures because cancer cells grow within a living creature with all of its complexities.
In addition, the tumors in these mice are stable over time and may be replicated, allowing researchers to test a variety of treatments and choose the one that is most effective for the patient whose tumor was utilized.
Individual ants were taught to distinguish a specific odor, the urine of mice, in exchange for a sweet solution. The ant was placed in a circular arena, and three training sessions were conducted. During each training session, the time it took the ant to locate the reward was recorded.
Researchers demonstrated that ants could learn to recognize a combination of odors connected with a reward. After only three training sessions, they could distinguish between mice with and without tumors by sniffing their urine. They also observed that the larger the tumor, the more the mouse’s pee smells differently than usual.
One of the study’s authors, Dr. Baptiste Piqueret of the Lise Meitner Research Group Social Behaviour at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena, Germany, described the important findings to Medical News Today.
“We discovered last year that ants can detect the stench of malignancy using human cell lines. In the latest study, Dr. Piqueret found that ants can detect the presence of human cancers in a whole organism by smelling the urine of the ‘patient’ (we utilized mice grafted with human tumors).
James Dobbyn, a National Health Service senior research nurse and acute oncology clinical nurse specialist who was not involved in this study, remarked that “while patients may find it difficult to comprehend this technology if confirmed, the results of this research could have far-reaching benefits for our patient populations.”
Dobbyn stated, “For instance, in ovarian cancer, which accounts for 70% of all gynecological cancers, 75% of women are detected at stages III and IV due to non-specific symptoms. This makes their tumors far more difficult to treat.”
Clearly, earlier discovery results in improved patient outcomes and novel screening procedures like this one are welcomed if they are dependable and applicable in the clinical situation. Nonetheless, “further investigation is required,” he noted.