What! Ants can sniff out cancer in urine; check the details of the study here

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences points out the potential use of ants for tumor detection

FPJ Web DeskUpdated: Wednesday, January 25, 2023, 06:05 PM IST
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Although ants are frustrating when they get into your home or when you’re out in a park or in the wild during a trek. They might annoy you, but ants do help the environment. Ants are the eusocial insects of the family Formicidae and belong to the order Hymenoptera.

They are social insects, which means they live in large colonies or groups and have over 13,800 species, with an estimated total of 22,000 species classified. The tiny insects are identified by their antennae and the distinctive node-like structure that forms their slender waists.

Ants can detect cancer

According to the Washington Post, scientists have discovered that ants can detect the scent of cancer in urine. Though ants don't have noses, they have an incredible sense of smell, thanks to the abundance of olfactory receptors on their antennae.

Notably, tumors that are cancerous release distinctive versions of chemicals called volatile organic compounds that often show up in bodily fluids such as sweat and urine. Ants can sniff out those compounds in urine.

The study

In these findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, researchers said these insects could be used as a cost-effective way to identify cancers in patients.

For the study, the research team grafted pieces of a human breast-cancer tumor onto mice. They then exposed 35 ants belonging to the species known as Formica fusca to urine samples from mice with, and without, tumors.  

Results

The researchers trained the ants to associate the smell of tumors with a reward by placing a drop of sugar water in front of the urine from animals with cancer. The ants spent significantly more time around the urine of cancerous mice than that of healthy mice. 

Researchers now want to take it a step further and see if the ants can do the same for human urine. They also noted that ants have an edge over dogs and other animals because the latter are time-consuming to train. While dogs can take around six months to train, it took only 10 minutes and three training rounds, to lock in the ants' smell association for the aforementioned study. 

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