A interesting new proof-of-concept study from a team of French researchers reveals that trained ants might be useful in identifying cancer in people. Researchers revealed that a certain species of ant can be easily trained to detect malignant cells with the same accuracy as other animals with bio-detection skills, such as dogs.
We’re all known with dogs’ extraordinary smell capabilities. Dogs have been used for years to detect things like illicit substances and explosives, but they have lately been investigated for their astonishing capacity to sniff out illnesses like cancer, malaria, and even COVID-19.
Training and maintaining a detection dog is not a quick or inexpensive endeavor. Because training a dog for detection can take up to a year, researchers have now resorted to other creatures such as mice, honeybees, and locusts.
The current study looked into the viability of teaching a type of ant known as Formica fusca. Ants have previously been proven to be capable of homing in on certain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and earlier research has indicated that different forms of cancer may be detected by their own distinct VOCs. So the new study set out to see if ants could be taught to detect cancer cells.
The preliminary experiments concentrated on two kinds of breast cancer cells, each with a unique VOC signature. In just three training sessions, the researchers were able to efficiently teach the ants to distinguish between malignant and non-cancerous cells with an accuracy comparable to that shown in previous canine studies.
“In terms of detecting ability, ants are thus similar to dogs – the best researched bio-detectors,” the researchers write. “In certain ways, ants outperform dogs because they require far less training time (30 minutes versus 6-12 months for a dog) and a lower cost of training and maintenance” (honey and frozen insects twice a week). After a 3-day training period, anyone may apply our basic conditioning routine.”
Referencing prior ant training studies the researchers hypothesize individual ants could be used to detect cancerous cells up to nine times before their conditioned responses begin to lapse. This makes ants a more efficient and cost-effective detection tool compared to any other animal or organism used for similar purposes.
“Ants therefore represent a fast, efficient, inexpensive, and highly discriminant detection tool for detection of cancer cell volatiles,” the researchers concluded in the study. “Our approach could potentially be adapted to a range of other complex odor detection tasks including the detection of narcotics, explosives, spoiled food, or other diseases (malaria, infections, diabetes for instance).”
The study is just a preliminary demonstration of a proof-of-concept, so there are obviously a large number of hurdles that would need to be resolved before ants are actually used to detect anything in the real world. For example, more work is needed to catalog and validate specific VOC profiles to certain cancers. And it is unclear how ants would be realistically deployed to detect things in the real world beyond identifying specific samples in a lab.
The new study was published in the journal iScience.