Ants live in a world of smells. Some species are completely blind. Others rely so heavily on scent that those who miss the pheromone trail walk in circles, lost, until they die of exhaustion.
Ants have such a keen sense of smell that researchers are now training them to detect the odor of human cancer cells.
A study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences highlights ants’ keen sense of smell and highlights how we may one day use these animals’ senses for a specific task – or, in the case of ants, their antennae – such as quickly and cheaply detecting tumors. This is important because the earlier the cancer is detected, the greater the chances of recovery.
“The results are very promising,” said Baptiste Piqueret, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany, who studies animal behavior and co-authored the paper. However, he stresses: “It is important to know that we are a long way from being able to use these animals as a routine way to detect cancer.”
Stretching their pair of thin sensory appendages above their heads, insects detect and use chemical cues to do almost anything. – find food, swarm prey, locate colony mates, protect young. This chemical communication helps ants create complex societies of queens and workers that work in sync with scent, which scientists call some colonies “superorganisms.”
Correlation of volume with sugar
For their study, Baptiste Piqueret’s team grafted pieces of a malignant (human) breast tumor into mice and trained 35 ants to associate the urine of tumor-bearing rodents with sugar. It is placed on a plate Petrisilk ants (Formica fusca) spent significantly more time near tubes with urine from “sick” mice than with urine from healthy mice.
“The study was well thought out and conducted,” said Federica Pirrone, from the University of Milan (Italy), who was not involved in the ant research but has conducted similar research on dogs’ sense of smell.
Federica Pirrone says she has been fascinated by ants since she was a child, observing them in her parents’ garden in the French countryside. “I’ve always liked ants. Watch them, play with them,” he says.
Dogs, mice and flies
On the other hand, and most importantly, the way we diagnose cancer today – blood draws, biopsies and colonoscopies – it is often expensive and invasive. the behaviorists [ou comportamentalistas]experts who study animal behavior envision a world in which doctors may one day rely on species with sophisticated senses to help detect tumors quickly and cheaply.
Dogs are known to be able to smell the presence of cancer in body odor, as previous research has shown. Mice can be trained to discriminate between healthy littermates and tumor-bearing littermates. Nematodes are attracted to certain organic compounds associated with cancer. Even fruit fly neurons fire in the presence of certain cancer cells.
But ants, Baptiste Piqueret suggested, may have the advantage over dogs and other animals that take time to train.
During the restrictions of the Covid pandemic, the researcher took silk ants into his apartment outside Paris to continue his experiments. Choose the genre Formica fusca Why “he has a good memory, is easy to train and doesn’t bite,” said Baptiste Piqueret.
It remains to train the ants and test the confusion
Researchers have a lot more work to do before ants or other animals can help make a real diagnosis. Scientists need to test for factors that may be confounding, such as diet or age, said Federica Pirrone. Piqueret’s team plans to test the ants’ ability to smell cancer markers in the urine of real patients. “To have real confirmations, we have to wait for the next steps,” the researcher said.
If ants are ever used in cancer screening, Baptiste Piqueret wants to make one thing clear: no, they won’t have to drag you. “There will be no direct contact between ants and patients“he said.
The scientist recalls once having to reassure someone who knew about his research that ants appearing at a picnic were not a sign of cancer. “ThatThe ants were not trained,” he explained. “SMALLthey want to eat sugar.”
Exclusive PÚBLICO/The Washington Post