Ants can smell cancer in urine, scientists have found.
Several types of cancer have been found to alter the smell of urine, but for the first time, experts have discovered that ants have the ability to detect the smell.
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 means of identifying cancer in patients.
Study author Professor Patrizia d’Ettorre, from Sorbonne Paris Nord University, said: “Ants can be used as bio-sensors to distinguish healthy individuals from those with tumours.
“They are easy to train, learn quickly, are very efficient and inexpensive to maintain.”
This research builds on a previous study by Professor d’Ettorre and his colleagues in which they showed that ants were able to “sniff out” human cancer cells grown in the laboratory.
For the current study, the researchers exposed 70 ants — belonging to the species known as Formica fusca — to urine samples from mice with and without tumors.
After three trials, the ants were able to tell the difference between the smell of urine from healthy mice and that of mice with tumors.
This is because ants have a very sensitive olfactory system, the researchers said.
Professor d’Ettorre told PA: “We trained them in associative learning to associate a given smell – cancer – with a reward and after very few tries they learned the association.
“We demonstrated that ants can distinguish the urine of healthy mice from the urine of tumor-bearing mice.
“It looks more like a real-life situation than using cultured cancer cells.
“We were surprised by the efficiency and reliability of the ants.”
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As part of the next steps, the researchers want to see if ants can do the same for human urine.
Previous research has shown that dogs can detect cancer by sniffing urine after being trained to do so.
There are also electronic devices that can detect certain types of cancer – such as bladder, breast or prostate cancer – from urine samples.
The human nose, however, cannot pick up the smell of cancer in urine.
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