A fascinating study by a team of French researchers suggests that trained ants could be effective in detecting cancer in humans.
The researchers showed that a certain species of ant can be quickly trained to detect cancer cells with an accuracy equal to that seen in other animals with biosensing capability, such as dogs.
We all know the extraordinary olfactory senses of dogs. Used for years to track things like drugs and explosives, dogs have more recently been studied for their impressive ability to detect diseases, like cancer, malaria or even COVID-19.
Training and maintaining a detection dog is not a quick or cheap task. It can take up to a year to train a dog for detection, so researchers have recently turned their attention to other organisms, such as mice, bees and locusts.
This latest study explored the feasibility of forming a species of ant called Formica fusca. Ants have already been shown to be able to absorb certain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and previous studies have shown that cancers can be identified by their own VOCs. The new research therefore investigated whether ants could be trained to detect cancer cells.
Preliminary testing focused on two types of breast cancer cells, both with different VOC profiles. In just three training trials, researchers were able to teach ants to effectively differentiate cancer cells of non-cancerous cells with an accuracy similar to that seen in recent dog studies.
Ants are thus equivalent to dogs, the most studied biosensors, in terms of detection capacity. In some respects, ants outperform dogs because they require extremely short training time (30 minutes compared to 6-12 months for a dog) and low cost of training and upkeep (honey and frozen insects twice a day). week). Our simple conditioning protocol can be applied by everyone, after a training time of approximately 3 days.
Referring to previous studies on ant training, the researchers hypothesize that ants could be used to detect cancer cells up to nine times before their conditioned responses begin to fail. This converts to ants are a more efficient and cost-effective detection tool than any other animal or organism used for similar purposes.
Ants therefore represent a rapid, efficient, inexpensive and highly discriminating screening tool for the detection of volatile cancer cells. Our approach could potentially be adapted to a number of other complex odor detection tasks, such as the detection of narcotics, explosives, spoiled food or other diseases (e.g. malaria, infections, diabetes). ).
The study is only a preliminary demonstration of a proof of concept, so there are obviously a number of hurdles to overcome before ants are actually used to detect anything in the real world.
For example, further work is needed to catalog and validate specific VOC profiles for certain types of cancer. And it’s unclear how ants would realistically be deployed to detect things in the real world beyond identifying specific samples in a lab.
More information: www.cell.com (text in English).