Ants Can 'Sniff Out' Cancer, Scientists Discover

Ants could end up being cheaper and easier to train for cancer detection than dogs.

Formica fusca ants can be trained to detect cancerous cells.
Paul Devienne, Laboratoire d'Ethologie Expérimentale et Comparée at 'Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

You've probably heard about dogs that have been trained to smell cancer in humans. But what about ants doing the same job? A team of scientists has found that ants can use their keen sense of smell to detect cancerous cells.

The team used Formica fusca ants, also known as silky ants, and trained them through a reward system. "After a few minutes of training, these insects, which use smell for daily tasks, were able to differentiate healthy human cells from cancerous human cells," the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) said in a statement Wednesday. 

Researchers have been exploring ways to quickly and efficiently detect cancer early without having to resort to pricy or invasive methods. "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," the researchers said in a paper published in iScience last month.

These ants will work for food.

Paul Devienne, Laboratoire d'Ethologie Expérimentale et Comparée at 'Université Sorbonne Paris Nord

Training the ants involved associating the reward of a sugar solution with the smell the researchers wanted them to detect. The team tested the ants' memories with trials where no reward was present. The trained ants spent time near the odor they were conditioned to respond to. The insects were also able to differentiate between two different cancer cell lines.

Dogs are good at sniffing out cancer, but the training process is time consuming. Said CNRS, "The efficacy of this method must now be assessed using clinical trials on a human being, but this first study shows that ants have high potential, are capable of learning very quickly, at lower cost, and are efficient."

The researchers see a potential for ants to also sniff out other odors, like narcotics, explosives or other diseases. They're not as cuddly as dogs, but their olfactory superpowers are just as keen.