Can Ants Help Detect Cancer in Humans?

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French researchers trained silky ants to "sniff out" cancerous cells in humans( Credit: Mathias Krumbholz/- Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0/ Commons.wikimedia.org)

Ants are truly fascinating creatures. The industrious insects can lift up to 50 times their own body weight, morph into rafts to protect themselves from floods, predict earthquakes, and even repair their damaged homes. Now, researchers have found that the amazing insects may even be able to help detect cancer in humans.

For their study, the team led by researchers from Sorbonne University in Paris, France, turned to the Formica fusca, or silky ants, found throughout Europe. They began by exposing individual ants to two tubes — one empty and the other containing a solution with cancerous cells. When the insects went toward the latter tube, they were rewarded with a sugar solution. It took the clever creatures just 30 minutes to associate the diseased cells' distinct odor with the treat.

The scientists tested the insects' cancer-detecting prowess by removing the sugar solution. They found that the ants continued to gravitate towards the tube about nine times before realizing it was gone.

The design of the researchers’ testing apparatus (Credit: Piqueret et al., iScience, 2022))

The team then tested to see if the insects could differentiate between different kinds of cancer. They trained two groups of ants to associate the sugar solution with the unique smells of two types of breast cancer. Once again, the insects chose the smell they had been exposed to long after the sugary solution had been removed.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Cell.com on February 22, 2022, next hope to determine if the insects can detect cancer when the diseased cells are not isolated from normal cells. They also plan to investigate if they can sniff out cancer from body fluids like saliva or sweat.

Dr. Baptiste Piqueret, the study's lead author, explains, "The human body is not composed of a single cell type but of a myriad. We now need to assess the feasibility of using ants for cancer detection by comparing a whole organism with cancer and a whole organism without cancer. Once this will be done, we could test the abilities of ants with a human body as a source of odor."

The ants were trained to associate the cancer odor with a sugary treat (Credit: Piqueret et al., iScience, 2022))

If successful, ants could provide a feasible alternative to dogs to detect diseases in humans. They could potentially also be trained to sniff out the presence of things like explosives and drugs.

"Ants are equivalent to dogs… in terms of detection abilities,” the researchers wrote in their study. “In some respects, ants surpass dogs because they need an extremely shorter training time (30 minutes compared to 6-12 months for a dog) and a reduced cost of training and maintenance.”

Resources: NewAtlas.com, sciencefocus.com, bigthink.com

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101 Comments
  • es44ac-foxboy
    es44ac-foxboyabout 13 hours
    My house is filled with termites. At least ants are better than these drywood eaters.
    • cookiefoxcandy
      Ants are crawling around my home. And my mom used to have cancer I think. Good job ants
      • joannechen
        Interesting, but a bit yucky :)
        • frenchie_friend
          Its cool and all but dont dogs already do this?
          • cookiefoxcandy
            I already have a dog so yay I'm cancer proof
            • cheesecrows
              Yeah, but the point is that ants take much less time to train than dogs
              • grim1
                grim14 days
                Yeah but it takes up to a year to train a dog to find cancer but it can take an ant only like 30 minutes as the last paragraph said.
              • horsegirl4life
                SO COOL!!! ( now I want pet ants )
                • creampuffcookie
                  Ant fun fact!- ants are not affected by old age like humans are! In elderly humans, the levels of two brain chemicals, serotonin and dopamine, plummet. Low levels of serotonin causes memory loss and inability to learn, while dopamine affects physical movement as well as learning. However, old ant workers showed no dip in these chemicals. What do all these results mean? Age has no effect on ant behavior. Old workers had just an acute sense of smell as younger ones. They were strong enough to walk great distances looking for food. Back in the nest, they are better nurturers of larvae, nimbly cleaning eggs and feeding larvae. These workers work till the last weeks of their life.
                  • isaiahlange
                    ok so ants are realy cool and super cool i own an ant farm and the zoo but also iam bill gates the worlds youngest perdon
                  • gonisgoodanime
                    SAVE THEM ANTS :)
                    • chasej3718
                      Ants can do much more like farming. they are a lot like humans.
                    • glowingkoala
                      That would be cool and helpful if ants could do that. Also, ants are easy to find.