Scientists have shown that locusts are skilled at distinguishing between healthy and cancerous human cells using their sense of smell; this could lead to opportunities for earlier disease detection, improving recovery prospects.
Even better, the insects can distinguish certain cancer cell lines, indicating that it may be possible to identify not just the presence of cancer but also its type. There is tremendous potential if we can figure out how to use medical technologies to harness this talent.
Its findings are encouraging for the early identification of cancer and were published on the pre-print website BioRxiv before peer review. It has been demonstrated that locust detection, which is assessed by variations in brain activity detected by electrodes, is accurate, sensitive, and quick, occurring in only a few milliseconds.
"Early detection [of cancer] is so important, and we should use every possible tool to get there, whether it's engineered or provided to us by millions of years of natural selection," microbiologist Christopher Contag from Michigan State University said. "If we're successful, cancer will be a treatable disease."
All of this is made possible by the volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) that we breathe out, which are known to be altered in some way by the presence of cancer interfering with particular cells' metabolic activities. Finding the change early on is the key.
Enter the locust, a common insect utilized in scent study by scientists, so we already have a lot of knowledge about these creatures and their sensory abilities. The team was able to gauge the locusts' reactions to gas samples from various cells using electrodes affixed to their brains, and they were able to create signal profiles that represented the substances they were smelling. Indeed, there were differences between the profiles generated in response to cancer cells and healthy cells.
The scientists were able to confirm that the cells did, in fact, smell different to the locusts-most likely because of the airborne VOCs has given off-after previously establishing that cells from mouth cancers looked different from normal cells under a microscope and attributing that to changes in metabolites.
"We expected that the cancer cells would appear different than the normal cells. But when the bugs could distinguish three different cancers from each other, that was amazing," Contag said.
The development of "bionic nose" devices that may detect changes in VOCs is already underway, but scientists are still far from producing sensors that are as effective as those that nature has already developed. This finding might present an alternative course of action for that investigation