Ants can ‘sniff out’ cancer in urine, scientists discover
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Ants are able to lift objects five thousand times their own weight, and now scientists have found they can do something even more remarkable. They can detect the scent of cancer in urine.
Several types of cancer have been found to alter the smell of urine and, after extensive studies, researchers found the insects can tell when the disease is present.
In their findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, they said these insects could be used as a cost-effective way to identify cancers in patients.
Study author Professor Patrizia d’Ettorre, of Sorbonne Paris Nord University in Paris, France, said: “Ants can be used as bio-detectors to discriminate healthy individuals from tumor-bearing ones.
“They are easy to train, learn fast, are very efficient and are not expensive to keep.”
This research builds on a previous study by Professor d’Ettorre and her colleagues where they showed ants were able to “sniff out” human cancer cells grown in the lab.
For the most recent study, the researchers exposed 70 ants – belonging to the species known as Formica fusca – to urine samples from mice with, and without, tumours.
After three trials, the ants were able to tell the difference between the urine odour of healthy mice from that of tumour-bearing mice.
The researchers say this is because ants have a very sensitive olfactory system.
Professor d’Ettorre added: “We trained them with associative learning to associate a given odour – cancer – with a reward and, after very few trials, they learned the association.
“We demonstrated that ants can discriminate the urine of healthy mice from the urine of tumour-bearing mice.
“This is more similar to a real-life situation than using cultured cancer cells.
“We were surprised by how efficient and reliable the ants are.”
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The researchers now want to see if the ants can do the same for human urine.
Previous research has shown dogs can detect cancer from urine’s smell after being trained to do so.
There are also electronic devices that can detect certain types of cancer – such as bladder, breast or prostate – from urine samples.
The human nose, however, cannot pick up the scent of cancer in urine.
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