Ants can detect the smell of cancer, research finds

The insects could be used as bio-detectors to distinguish between healthy people and those with tumours, study suggests

Researchers believe ants can discern the scent of cancer in urine. PA
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Ants are able to detect the scent of cancer in urine, scientists have found.

It was earlier discovered that several types of cancer alter the smell of urine but experts have, for the first time, found ants to have this ability.

Findings published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences say the insects could be used as a cost-effective way to identify cancers in patients.

“Ants can be used as bio-detectors to discriminate healthy individuals from tumour-bearing ones," said study author Prof Patrizia d’Ettorre, of Sorbonne Paris Nord University in Paris, France.

“They are easy to train, learn fast, are very efficient and are not expensive to keep.”

This research builds on a previous study by Prof d’Ettorre and her colleagues in which they showed ants were able to “sniff out” human cancer cells grown in a laboratory.

For the current study, the researchers exposed 70 ants belonging to the species known as Formica fusca to urine from mice with and without tumours.

After three trials, the ants were able to tell the difference between the urine odour of healthy mice from that of mice with tumours.

Ants have a very sensitive olfactory system, the researchers said.

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“We trained them with associative learning to associate a given odour — cancer — with a reward and, after very few trials, they learnt the association," Prof d’Ettorre said.

“This is more similar to a real-life situation than using cultured cancer cells. We were surprised by how efficient and reliable the ants are.”

From there, the researchers want to see if the ants can do the same with human urine.

Previous research has shown dogs can detect cancer through the smell of urine after being trained.

There are also electronic devices that can detect certain types of cancer — such as bladder, breast or prostate — from urine samples.

People with type 2 diabetes 'twice as likely to die from some cancers'

People with type 2 diabetes are twice as likely to die from some cancers compared to the general population, a study has shown.

Patients with the condition have an increased risk of dying from pancreatic, bowel or liver cancers, researchers found.

Women with type 2 diabetes also face a higher risk of dying from endometrial cancer.

Overall, people with the condition have an 18 per cent increased risk of dying from cancer, says the study published in the journal Diabetologia.

Researchers from the University of Leicester said that cancer risk should be given “a similar level of attention” as other complications of type 2 diabetes, such as the increased risk of heart disease.

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The study, funded by charity Hope Against Cancer, found that women with type 2 diabetes had a 9 per cent increased risk of dying from breast cancer, and the risk appeared to be increasing.

They suggested that it could be beneficial to extend breast cancer screening, which is currently offered to women aged 50 to 71 in England, so that younger women with type 2 diabetes could also be scanned.

The team examined data on 137,804 people in the UK with the disorder, who had an average age of 64, and tracked them for more than eight years.

During the follow-up period, more than 39,000 people involved with the study died.

Across the period studied, 1998 to 2018, researchers analysed trends in mortality among those in the study and compared them to people in the general population.

They found that cancer death rates among people with type 2 diabetes aged 55 years and 65 years decreased slightly during the study period.

But they increased among people aged 75 years and 85 years.

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“If you’re living with type 2 diabetes, over time, high blood glucose, blood pressure and blood fat levels can cause serious long-term damage to the body, including to the eyes, heart, nerves and kidneys," Dr Lucy Chambers, head of research communications at Diabetes UK, said in response to the study.

“Type 2 diabetes is also linked to increased risk of developing certain types of cancer, and both conditions can have common risk factors.

“This research indicates that while people with type 2 diabetes in the UK tend to be living longer, deaths from some type of cancers appear to be increasing, particularly in older people with type 2 diabetes.

“These findings highlight the need for further research into cancer causes and prevention in this population.”

Updated: January 25, 2023, 10:04 AM
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