Ants can smell cancer in their urine, scientists have found.
Several types of cancer have been found to alter the smell of urine, but for the first time experts have discovered that ants have the ability to detect odors.
In their findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, they say the insects can be used as a cost-effective way to identify cancer in patients.
Study author Professor Patrizia d’Ettorre from Université Paris-North said: “Ants can be used as biodetectors to distinguish healthy individuals from those with tumors.
“They’re easy to train, they learn quickly, they’re very efficient, and they’re inexpensive to keep.”
The research builds on a previous study by Professor d’Ettorre and colleagues showing that ants can “sniff out” human cancer cells grown in the laboratory.
In the current study, the researchers exposed 70 ants (of a species known as Formica fusca) to urine samples from mice with and without tumors.
After three trials, the ants were able to distinguish the urine odor of healthy mice from those with tumors.
The researchers say this is because ants have very sensitive olfactory systems.
Prof d’Ettorre told PA: “We trained them by associative learning to associate a given smell – cancer – with a reward, and after very few trials, they learned the association.
“We demonstrated that ants can differentiate between the urine of healthy mice and the urine of tumor-bearing mice.
“This is closer to real life than using cultured cancer cells.
“We were surprised by the efficiency and reliability of the ants.”
Pioneering cancer vaccine trial to start in UK in September
Urine test for liver cancer one step closer
As part of the next step, the researchers wanted to see if ants could do the same with human urine.
Previous research has shown that dogs can detect cancer by sniffing urine after training.
There are also electronic devices that can detect certain types of cancer, such as bladder, breast or prostate cancer, from a urine sample.
However, the human nose cannot smell cancer in urine.