A new study led by Michigan State University (MSU) has shown that locusts can reliably detect various types of human cancer by smell. Insects can not only “smell” the difference between healthy and cancer cells, but also distinguish between different lines of cancer cells. These results could form the basis for the creation of devices that use locust sensory neurons for early detection of cancer using biomarkers found only in the patient’s breath.
“Noses are still state-of-the-art technology,” said Debajit Saha, senior author of the study, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Moscow State University. “There’s nothing better than them when it comes to gas sensing. People have been working on ‘electronic noses’ for over 15 years, but they’re still no closer to what biology can do seamlessly.”
Cancer cells function differently than healthy cells and create different chemical compounds as they grow. If these chemicals enter the lungs or respiratory tract – which happens with most cancers – they can be detected in exhaled air.
“Theoretically, you can breathe into the device, and it will be able to detect and distinguish between several types of cancer and even determine the stage of the disease. However, such a device cannot yet be used in a clinical setting,” Professor Saha explained.
By attaching electrodes to their brains and recording their response to samples of gas produced by both healthy and cancerous cells, the researchers studied how well locusts – model organisms widely used in the scientific community – can differentiate between these different cell types in the case of three different cell lines. oral cancer. “We expected cancer cells to look different than normal cells,” said study co-author Christopher Kontag, professor of biomedical engineering at Moscow State University. “But when the bugs were able to tell three different types of cancer apart, it was amazing.”
While the team only focused on oral cancers, they believe the system could work with any cancer that releases metabolites into the breath, which is likely most cancers. Using information gleaned from the locust’s neural systems, they aim to develop portable sensors that could analyze volatile cancer biomarkers before other, more invasive methods can detect the disease.
“Early detection is so important, and we must use all possible tools to achieve this goal, whether developed or provided to us by millions of years of natural selection. If we succeed, cancer will become a curable disease,” Contag concluded.
A preprint of the study can be found on the bioRxiv website.