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Can Ants “Smell” Cancer?

Posted on Wednesday, February 1, 2023
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by AMAC, D.J. Wilson
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Animals are marvelous creatures that possess keen senses. Trained dogs can use their olfactory sense to sniff out various diseases in humans. Per two separate studies, these furry creatures could detect lung cancer in exhaled breath samples with high accuracy. Now there’s evidence that ants can detect the scent of cancer in urine. Per Live Science, “Because ants lack noses, they use olfactory receptors on their antennae to help them find food or sniff out potential mates.” Recently, scientists trained nearly three dozen silky ants to use their receptors to find tumors. The hope is that aspects of this science can someday be applied to detect cancer early and thus save lives.

In a study, scientists grafted slices of human breast cancer tumor samples onto mice and taught the insects to “associate urine from the tumor-bearing rodents with sugar,” per the Washington Post. The tumor cells contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that researchers use as cancer biomarkers. In the study, ants were placed in a petri dish. Interestingly, they spent more time near tubes with urine from the ill mice as compared to time spent near that of the healthy ones.  Like dogs, ants can detect anomalies using their sense of smell. Since dogs are harder to train, the hope is that these small insects can do the job of detecting cancer more easily and perhaps one day this can be applied to the science of medically detecting illness in humans. Additionally, scientists point out that ants can be “efficient” and “inexpensive cancer bio-detectors,” each of which is beneficial to aid in early detection of disease.

It is not a new practice for humans to rely on animals for use of their keen senses for the benefit of mankind. In fact, animals such as Labrador Retrievers have done detection work for decades, widely being used in search and rescue operations. In recent times, dogs have shown potential at detecting melanoma, a potentially fatal skin cancer. Though mounting data demonstrates that man’s best friend can detect tiny traces of odors created by various diseases, the process of training dogs to perform tasks requires the investment of time, money, and energy. However, the study published Jan 25th in the Journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, shows some promise for the future using ants. Will these small insects with a refined sense of smell become a daily way to detect cancer down the road? Time will tell.

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