Ants have the ability to sniff out cancerous cells in humans, a new study has discovered, suggesting they could be used for cancer diagnosis in future.
Researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) discovered that ant species Formica fusca has a well developed sense of smell.
It was able to differentiate cancerous cells from healthy cells in humans, thanks to their sense of smell, limited trials revealed. But more clinical tests must be carried out before they could be used in clinical settings like hospitals, the team said.
They suggest that in future, ants could turn out to be better at dogs when it comes to locating cancerous cells in humans.
To conduct their research, the scientists performed tests with 36 ants, smelling cells under a laboratory setting.
First, the specialists exposed the ants to the smell of a sample of cancerous human cells. This odor was then associated with a reward of sugar solution.
In a second step, the researchers exposed the ants to two different odors. One was a new smell and the second was the smell of the cancerous cells.
Once this test was successful, the researchers exposed the ants to different cancerous cells.
As such, the scientists found that 'ants discriminate between cancerous and healthy cells and between two cancerous lines.'
After training, Formica fusca ants are able to detect volatile organic compounds emitted by cancerous cells.
'This first study shows that ants have high potential, are capable of learning very quickly, at lower cost, and are efficient,' points out CNRS in a news release.
This isn't the first time that scientists have used the animal sense of smell to locate cancerous cells.
'Dogs' noses are well suited for medical diagnosis and used for the detection of cancer-specific [volatile organic compounds],' the researchers explained.
However, training them to do so requires several months to a year.
On the other hand, 'insects can be easily reared in controlled conditions, they are inexpensive, they have a very well-developed olfactory system and hundreds of individuals can be conditioned with very few trials,' the researchers point out.
'Ants therefore represent a fast, efficient, inexpensive, and highly discriminant detection tool for detection of cancer cell volatiles,' the team explained.
'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, including malaria, infections, and diabetes.'
The findings have been published in the journal iScience.