Ants enlisted in the fight against cancer

A Formica fusca ant on a Petri dish containing cancerous cells.

In the insectarium of the Laboratory of Experimental and Comparative Ethology (LEEC), at the Sorbonne Paris Nord University (Villetaneuse, Seine-Saint-Denis), science abounds. In an atmosphere maintained at 24°C, Baptiste Piqueret trained nearly 130 ants to olfactorily detect the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by cancer cells, thanks to a reward system. The first results of her work, conducted under the aegis of Patrizia d’Ettorre and Jean-Christophe Sandoz, respectively LEEC professor and CNRS research director, were published on February 21 in the journal iScience.

In the study in question, Baptiste Piqueret exposed ants to the smell of a sample of human cancer cells heated to 37°C, like the human body, by placing sugar water nearby. The ant then wandered around freely until it found the reward, which it was going to drink, by “antennating”. “In ants, the antennae are the equivalent of the nose in humans. She will somehow sniff her surroundings and realize that there is a smell next to the reward and associate the two. »

In the second part of the test, the researchers presented the smell of cancer cells and a smell of non-cancerous cells to see if the ants could tell the difference, this time without reward. The exercise was performed three times in a row and took between half an hour and an hour, “according to the learning abilities and personality of the ants”, adds the post-doc. New ants were used for each learning so as not to distort the results of the study. “We look where the ant is looking and the fact that it spends more time looking around the smell it has learned proves to us that the learning is successful. », summarizes Patrizia d’Ettorre. In order to verify the results of the study, 50% of the ants were trained to detect cancer while the other half were trained to detect the absence of cancer.

With support from Institut Curie, CNRS and Inserm, three types of cancer cells were used for the study: one from the ovary and two from the breast. A success rate of 95% was achieved for the first phase of the study. If the ant is able to detect them, it is because “the cells function like small factories with products coming in and products going out”, schematizes Baptiste Piqueret, who gives the example of two breast cells, one cancerous and one non-cancerous. The metabolism of the diseased cell will cause it to use and excrete different compounds that do not have the same smell as those of healthy cells.

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