Ants detect cancer cells through volatile organic compounds

iScience. 2022 Feb 22;25(3):103959. doi: 10.1016/j.isci.2022.103959. eCollection 2022 Mar 18.


Cancer is among the world's leading causes of death. A critical challenge for public health is to develop a noninvasive, inexpensive, and efficient tool for early cancer detection. Cancer cells are characterized by an altered metabolism, producing unique patterns of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that can be used as cancer biomarkers. Dogs can detect VOCs via olfactory associative learning, but training dogs is costly and time-consuming. Insects, such as ants, have a refined sense of smell and can be rapidly trained. We show that individual ants need only a few training trials to learn, memorize, and reliably detect the odor of human cancer cells. These performances rely on specific VOC patterns, as shown by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. Our findings suggest that using ants as living tools to detect biomarkers of human cancer is feasible, fast, and less laborious than using other animals.

Keywords: Biological sciences; Cancer; Cell biology.