Ants’ sense of smell is so strong, they can sniff out cancer


The ant oncologist will now meet with you.

Ants live in a world of smells. Some species are completely blind. Others rely so heavily on scent that those who lose a trace of a pheromone walk in a circle until they die of exhaustion.

Ants have such a refined sense of smell that researchers are now training them to detect the scent of human cancer cells.

A study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences draws attention to a sharp ant sensation and highlights how we may one day use sharp-nosed animals – or, in the case of ants, their sharp antennae – to quickly detect tumors. and cheap. This is important because the earlier the cancer is found, the better the chance of recovery.

“The results are very promising,” said Baptiste Piqueret, who studies animal behavior at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany and is one of the paper’s co-authors. But he added: “It’s important to know that we’re a long way from using them as a daily way to detect cancer.”

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Extending a pair of slender sensory appendages over their heads, the insects sense and use chemical cues to do just about everything – finding food, herding prey, spotting colony mates, protecting offspring. This chemical communication helps the ants form complex communities of queens and workers that work so cohesively with scent that scientists have led some colonies to call them “super-organisms.”

For their study, Piqueret’s team grafted parts of a human breast cancer tumor into mice and trained 35 ants to associate urine from tumor-bearing rodents with sugar. Silky ants placed in a petri dish (formica fusca) spent significantly more time near the tubes with urine from “sick” mice compared with urine from healthy ones.

“The study was well designed and conducted,” said Federica Pirrone, an associate professor at the University of Milan, who was not involved in the ant research but has conducted similar research on dogs’ olfactory abilities.

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Piqueret has been fascinated by ants ever since he played with them in his parents’ garden in the French countryside as a child. “I’ve always loved ants,” he said, “to look at them, to play with them.”

The way we diagnose cancer today by drawing blood, taking a biopsy, and performing a colonoscopy is often expensive and invasive. Animal behaviorists envision a world where doctors will one day use species with keen senses to help them identify tumors quickly and inexpensively.

Past research has shown that dogs can smell the presence of cancer in their body odor. Mice can be trained to distinguish between healthy and tumor-bearing citizens. Nematodes are attracted to certain organic compounds associated with cancer. Even the neurons of fruit flies fire in the presence of certain cancerous cells.

However, Piqueret suggested that ants may have an advantage over dogs and other animals that take time to train.

During the Covid quarantines, he brought the silky ants to his apartment outside of Paris to continue his experiments. He chose the breed because it has a good memory, is easy to train, and doesn’t bite (at least it’s not harsh, Piqueret said).

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Researchers need to work harder before ants or other animals can help make a true diagnosis. Pirrone said scientists need to test for confounding factors like diet or age. Piqueret’s team plans to test the ants’ ability to sniff out signs of cancer in the urine from real patients.

“We need to wait for the next steps to have real approvals,” said Pirrone.

If ants are used to screen for cancer, Piqueret wants to make one thing clear: No, they won’t have to crawl on you.

“There will be no direct contact between ants and patients,” he said. “So even if people are afraid of bugs, it’s okay.”

He once had to reassure someone who was aware of his research that the ants filling the picnic were no sign of cancer.

“The ants are not trained,” he said. “They just want to eat candy.”


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