Ants May Be Able to Detect Cancer, New Experiments Show

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Jan. 25, 2023 -- New research points to the possibility that ants will someday help diagnose cancer in human beings.

The insects have a highly refined sense of smell they use in all aspects of their lives – from finding food and mates to protecting their young and communicating.

“Ants show the potential to become a fast, efficient, inexpensive and non-invasive tool for detection of human tumours,” say the authors of a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Other animals could be helpful, too. Trained dogs can detect tumors in cell samples or body-odor samples. Mice were trained to discriminate tumor-bearing mice from healthy ones.

In the new study, scientists grafted pieces of human tumor onto mice and trained ants to associate urine from the sick rodents with sugar. The ants spent more time near the urine from the mice with tumors than with the urine from healthy mice.

“The results are very promising,” said Baptiste Piqueret, in The Washington Post. Piqueret is a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany and co-author of the paper. But, he said, “It’s important to know that we are far from using them as a daily way to detect cancer.”

Some 10 million people died of cancer in 2020. Survival rates improve with earlier diagnosis. Using animals like ants could prove to be less invasive and expensive than current detection methods, the researchers write.