Honeybees Trained to Sniff Out Cancer

Honeybees can be used to detect early stage cancer. Courtesy www.susanasoares.com.

Bees may soon be able to take some of the sting out of cancer by detecting it early and getting patients into treatment sooner.

Honeybees are known for their exquisitely sensitive sense of smell. They don't have noses, but their feet, tongues and antennae are packed with olfactory glands. They can also be quickly trained to do their "waggle dance" when they associate a specific smell with a food source.

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Taking advantage of these facts, Portuguese scientist Susana Soares has invented a two-chambered glass dome that uses bees to snuff out cancer.

"The glass objects have two enclosures: a smaller chamber that serves as the diagnostic space and a bigger chamber where previously trained bees are kept for the short period of time necessary for them to detect general health," Soares wrote on her website. "People exhale into the smaller chamber, and the bees rush into it if they detect on the breath the odor that they were trained to target."

Soares said she could train bees in 10 minutes to identify cancer and other diseases, such as tuberculosis and diabetes in their early stages. By exposing the insects to the odor molecules produced by an illness and then feeding them sugar, they learn to associate the smell with a food reward.

Richard Pollack, an entomologist who is chief scientific officer of IdentifyUs in Boston, said he thought it would be wonderful if people could exhale on a bee and get answers about health. But he remains skeptical.

"This device really needs to go through more independent studies before going public. We need to know how sensitive it is, how specific it is and how many false positives would occur. There's a heck of a lot more testing to be done," he said.

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But Soares said that her bee chamber was an inexpensive, sustainable and highly accurate diagnostic tool. And, she points out, bees, as well as wasps, are already used regularly to sniff out land mines and illegal drugs.