French researchers have discovered that ants have an interesting role in the early detection of cancers. They imagine being able to use this kind of rapid test in hospitals in a few years.

France is making progress in cancer research
Researchers in France discovered that ants could play a role in cancer research

Early detection of tumours

Ants can learn to sniff out cancerous human cells, like dogs but much more quickly, according to a study which proposes to dig this track for the early detection of tumours. Everything is happening for the moment in the laboratory, not yet in the hospital. Imagine small containers filled with a liquid preparation placed on a table, some of which contain cancer cells and some of which contain healthy cells. If you release a trained ant onto the table, it will be able to smell its way to the preparation containing the diseased cells, with a 95% success rate.

A powerful sense of smell

Baptiste Piqueret, an ethologist from the Sorbonne Paris Nord University therefore tried the experiment with ants, an insect using its powerful sense of smell in its daily tasks, and endowed with a capacity for rapid learning. With scientists from the CNRS, the Institut Curie and Inserm, he chose the most common species, Formica fusca, which is widespread in the northern hemisphere and which is not considered threatened in France.

Ants learn faster than dogs

Some dogs are able to spot breast cancer from the smell of sweat, but the advantage of ants is that they learn much faster than dogs and that their breeding costs less. It takes six months to a year to train a single dog, compared to only ten minutes of training for an ant. Concerning the detection of cancerous cells, it is for the moment only a laboratory experiment but this team plans to test the sense of smell of ants very quickly on samples of urine from mice suffering from cancer, before passing to human testing. If the results are confirmed, the researchers imagine being able to use this kind of rapid test in hospitals in a few years. If a tumor is suspected, the idea would be to quickly do this « ant test » before moving of course (in the event of a positive result) to more conventional examinations, such as MRI, mammography, blood tests or a biopsy.

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