Locusts May Be Able to Sniff Out Cancer for Early Detection


A locust’s sensory neurons allow the insect to not only “smell” a cell that has cancer but also distinguish between cancer cell lines, according to microbiologists working with biomedical engineers at Michigan State University.

What to know:

  • Metabolic processes are altered in cancer cells, creating different chemical compounds that are different from those in healthy cells as they work and grow. This affects the volatile organic compound (VOC) composition or smell in exhaled breath.

  • Individual cell culture VOC composition has been shown to trigger olfactory neural responses in the antennal lobe of locusts, and they can make clear distinctions not only between cancer cells and healthy cells but also between different cancer cell lines.

  • Scientists have been working on “electronic noses” for more than 15 years, but they’re still not close to achieving the speed, sensitivity, and specificity of old-fashioned biological olfaction, so they are now “hacking” the insect brain to use it for disease diagnosis until a device can be developed.

  • Electrodes are attached to the locust brains, and the insects respond to gas samples produced by healthy cells and cancer cells. Those signals can then be used to create chemical profiles of the different cells.

  • When cancer is caught in its first stage, patients have an 80% to 90% chance of survival. Those numbers plummet to 10% to 20% when it’s not caught until stage IV.

This is a summary of the article, “Harnessing Insect Olfactory Neural Circuits for Noninvasive Detection of Human Cancer,” published by Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory’s bioRxiv website on May 25, 2022. The full article can be found on biorxivorg.

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