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Ants detect scent of cancer in urine – research

Ants can sniff out cancer, say scientists (Paul Devienne/Sorbonne Paris Nord University in Paris/PA)
Ants can sniff out cancer, say scientists (Paul Devienne/Sorbonne Paris Nord University in Paris/PA)

Ants can detect the scent of cancer in urine, scientists have found.

Several types of cancer have been found to alter urine smell but experts have, for the first time, found ants to have this capability.

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 way to identify cancers in patients.

Study author Professor Patrizia d’Ettorre, of Sorbonne Paris Nord University in Paris, France, told the PA news agency: “Ants can be used as bio-detectors to discriminate healthy individuals from tumor-bearing ones.

“They are easy to train, learn fast, are very efficient and are not expensive to keep.”

This research builds on a previous study by Prof d’Ettorre and her colleagues where they showed ants were able to “sniff out” human cancer cells grown in the lab.

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, tumours.

After three trials, the ants were able to tell the difference between the urine odour of healthy mice from that of tumour-bearing mice.

This is because ants have a very sensitive olfactory system, the researchers said.

Prof d’Ettorre told PA: “We trained them with associative learning to associate a given odour – cancer – with a reward and, after very few trials, they learned the association.

“We demonstrated that ants can discriminate the urine of healthy mice from the urine of tumour-bearing mice.

“This is more similar to a real-life situation than using cultured cancer cells.

“We were surprised by how efficient and reliable the ants are.”

As part of the next steps, the researchers want to see if the ants can do the same for human urine.

Previous research has shown dogs can detect cancer from urine’s smell after being trained to do so.

There are also electronic devices that can detect certain types of cancer – such as bladder, breast or prostate – from urine samples.

The human nose, however, cannot pick up the scent of cancer in urine.