17 June 2024

Bees have been found to be able to detect lung cancer by breathing

Bees provide humans with honey, wax and are considered one of the most important pollinators of plants. A new American study has shown that the extreme sensitivity of the olfactory neurons of honeybees can be used to develop new ways of early diagnosis of lung cancer.

The use of the acute sense of smell of animals for biomedical purposes has long been of interest to scientists. In particular, researchers have previously conducted experiments on detection by dogs of various human diseases, including cancer, viral and parasitic diseases. Recently, Canadian experts have demonstrated that sensitive noses of assistance dogs are able to detect signs of stress in the smell of breath in people with post-traumatic stress disorder.

However, insects such as honeybees have an equally developed sense of smell and can also detect a wide variety of odours in low concentrations. In addition, their use as a diagnostic tool is more cost-effective.

Specialists in biomedical engineering, microbiology and neuroscience from the University of Michigan (USA) in a series of experiments have verified the ability of bees to distinguish between the breath of lung cancer patients and healthy people by the volatile organic compounds contained in it. The study was published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

In the laboratory, scientists created synthetic odours that mimic the breathing of a healthy person and a cancer patient. In the second case, they used six volatile biomarkers of lung cancer in different concentrations. The resulting mixtures were then tested on two dozen bees.

For the experiments, the scientists designed and 3D-printed a device to hold a live bee. Insects placed there opened their heads and with the help of tiny electrodes implanted in the part of the brain responsible for the sense of smell, recorded changes in neural signals under the influence of different stimuli.

By analysing the neural responses, the researchers found that the bees picked up lung cancer-related compounds, and in very small concentrations. Moreover, olfactory neurons of the brain of bees were able not only to distinguish the "smell" of healthy cell cultures from those affected by lung cancer, but also successfully differentiated between small cell lung cancer (small cell lung cancer, SCLC) and non-small cell lung cancer (non-small cell lung cancer, NSCLC).

According to the authors of the work, their results are important because they open the way to the creation of new biomedical technologies to detect the disease.

The scientists plan to develop a non-invasive diagnostic test based on the discoveries made in the experiment. According to the researchers' plan, patients will be required to simply exhale into a device with a special sensor inside, which will analyse the chemical composition of the breath, similar to the brain of bees. The new method, if created, will allow to quickly determine the type of lung cancer, which is crucial for further selection of the right treatment strategy.

According to the World Health Organisation, lung cancer is one of the three most common oncopathologies on the planet, along with breast cancer and colorectal cancer. The disease is often diagnosed at a late stage, when the range of treatment options is limited.

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