Ant oncologist will see you now.
A study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences highlights the ant’s senses and may one day highlight how we might use animals with sharp noses – or in the case of ants, sharp antennae – to quickly detect tumors. And cheap. That’s important because the earlier cancer is detected, the better the chance of recovery.
“The results are very promising,” said Baptiste Pickeret, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany who studied animal behavior and co-authored the paper. “It’s important to know that we are far from using them as a routine way to detect cancer,” he added.
With a pair of thin sensory organs spread out over their heads, the insects search for and deploy chemical signals to do everything – find food, hunt, identify mates, guard the young. This chemical connection helps ants build complex colonies of queens and workers, similar to scents; Because of this, scientists refer to some colonies as “superior bodies.”
For the study, Pickert’s team implanted human breast cancer tumors into mice and trained 35 ants to associate urine with sugar from the tumor-bearing mice. Placed in a petri dish, silk-like ants (Formica fusca) spent more time near the ureters of “diseased” mice compared to the urine of healthy ones.
“The study was well thought out and well conducted,” said Federica Pirone, associate professor at the University of Milan, who was not involved in the ant study but has conducted similar investigations into dogs’ sense of smell.
Pickeret was fascinated by ants when he played with them in his parents’ garden in the French countryside. “When I see ants, when I play with them, I always love them,” he said.
The way we diagnose cancer today – by drawing blood, taking biopsies and performing colonoscopies – is often expensive and invasive. Animal behaviorists are envisioning a world in which one day doctors can tap into their senses to help them identify tumors more quickly and cheaply.
Dogs can smell the presence of cancer in body odor, previous studies show. Mice can be trained to discriminate between healthy and tumor-bearing counterparts. Nematodes are attracted to certain organic compounds associated with cancer. Even the nerve cells of the fruit are burned in the presence of some cancer cells.
But ants may have an edge over dogs and other animals that take time to train, Pickerett points out.
He brought silkworm ants to his apartment outside Paris to continue his experiments during the Covid lockdowns. He chose the breed because it has a good memory, is easy to train and does not bite (at least not hard, as Pickert said).
Before ants or other animals can make a definitive diagnosis, researchers need to do a lot more work. Scientists should test for confounding factors such as diet or age, Pierron said. Pickerett’s team plans to test the ants’ ability to smell signs of cancer in urine from real patients.
“We have to wait for the next steps in order to have proper confirmations,” Pirroon said.
If ants are used for cancer screening, Pickerett wants to make one thing clear: No, they don’t need to be dragged to you.
“There is no direct contact between the ants and the patients,” he said. “So even if people are afraid of insects, it’s good.”
Once upon a time, someone had to confirm that the ants were not a sign of cancer.
“The ants are not trained,” he said. “They just want to eat sugar.”