Pharma Focus Asia


Sumel Ashique, Department of Pharmaceutical Science, Bengal College of Pharmaceutical Science and Research

Farzad Taghizadeh-Hesary, Assistant Professor, ENT and Head and Neck Research Center and Department, The Five Senses Health Institute, School of Medicine, Iran University of Medical Sciences and Clinical Oncology Department, Iran University of Medical Sciences

Cancer is a significant contributor to premature mortality globally, ranking among the top causes of death in numerous countries. Improvements in treatments have led to higher survival rates, with more people living with cancer as a chronic condition. Currently it was found that ants can detect the scent of several types of cancer.

Early detection of cancer is critical for successful treatment and improved patient outcomes. Unfortunately, many existing methods for early detection are invasive and expensive, limiting their accessibility to a broader population. However, recent research has focused on identifying unique cancer-specific volatile organic compound (VOC) profiles in exhaled breath. These VOC profiles are generated by tumour cells due to their altered metabolism and physiological changes associated with cancer development. This has opened up a new frontier in cancer diagnostics and health inspections, offering the potential for developing rapid, noninvasive, and cost-effective cancer screening tools.

The analysis of VOC biomarkers in exhaled breath shows promise in its ability to serve as a noninvasive and affordable method for cancer screening. VOCs are small molecules released from metabolic processes in the body, and their unique patterns in cancer patients' breath can potentially be used as indicators of the disease. The advantages of breath analysis as a cancer diagnostic tool include its non-invasive nature, rapid screening capabilities, cost-effectiveness, and ability for repeatable testing. However, it's important to note that this approach is still an area of active research and faces challenges in terms of sensitivity, specificity, standardisation, and large-scale validation. Despite these challenges, breath analysis for cancer detection holds the potential to revolutionise early diagnosis and monitoring, leading to improved patient care and reduced healthcare burdens. As research and technology progress, breath analysis may become an essential component of cancer screening programs, benefiting individuals and healthcare systems alike. Previous research has indicated the potential use of dogs for tumour detection in body-odour samples. Additionally, studies have shown that Caenorhabditis elegans, a type of nematode, exhibits chemotaxis towards certain cancer-related VOCs. However, recent experiments employing in vivo calcium imaging with the proboscis extension response have indicated that neither honey bees nor dogs could effectively detect cancer odours, despite attempts at olfactory conditioning. In light of these findings, scientists are now considering alternative options and have turned their attention to insects as potential bio-detectors for various types of odours, including those related to cancer.

Insects present several advantages in this regard: they are abundant, making them suitable for large-scale screening, relatively easy to manage in laboratory settings, and do not require expensive rearing facilities, thus reducing overall costs. It's worth noting that this area of research is still in its early stages, and the potential use of insects as bio-detectors offers exciting possibilities for early cancer detection and other applications. However, further studies are needed to fully understand and validate their effectiveness in this role. Research on utilising animals' sense of smell for cancer detection has been an active area of study. Scientists have been exploring the potential of using animals such as dogs and rats, known for their highly sensitive olfactory abilities, to detect cancer from samples like urine, breath, or tissue. These animals have shown promising results in identifying certain types of cancer based on VOCs produced by cancer cells, which can be detected by their keen sense of smell. If successful, this approach could offer a cost-effective and non-invasive method for early cancer detection. However, further research is required to validate and understand the specific molecular signatures of cancer that animals are detecting. While animalbased detection methods might not replace standard diagnostic techniques like biopsies and imaging, they could potentially supplement existing methods and provide additional screening options, particularly in areas with limited access to advanced medical facilities.

Ants are known for their exceptional memory capabilities, forming long-lasting memories and exhibiting strong retention. In an intriguing study, researchers trained individual ants to recognize the scent of mouse urine by associating it with a sweet solution reward. The ants were placed in a circular arena and underwent three training sessions, during which the time taken to find the reward was measured. Over time, the ants learned to associate the specific smell with the reward, becoming more efficient at locating it during subsequent tests. The research also highlighted the ants' ability to generalise their memory by recognizing a mixture of different smells associated with the reward. This demonstrates that ants can learn specific associations and respond to more complex scent combinations to find the reward. Furthermore, the study revealed the ants' impressive memory retention. Even after multiple tests without any reward (up to nine times in the experiment), the ants continued to respond accurately. This suggests that their memories are stable and can last for several days. Overall, this research provides valuable insights into the cognitive abilities of ants and their capacity to navigate and adapt to their environments. Additionally, it contributes to a better understanding of memory and learning processes in various organisms, including humans. "The use of animals, such as ants, for cancer detection through their ability to detect specific VOCs is a promising area of research. Cancer cells can release distinct chemicals that differ from normal cells, making VOCs potential biomarkers for cancer detection. Animals can be trained through olfactory associative learning to differentiate between cancerous and noncancerous samples based on their highly developed sense of smell. This approach offers several potential benefits, including early cancer detection, non-invasiveness, cost-effectiveness, portability, and complementary use alongside existing diagnostic methods. However, there are challenges to address, such as standardising training protocols, accounting for variations between individual animals, and considering ethical aspects related to animal use for this purpose." In recent times, there has been a growing interest in leveraging animals' highly developed sense of smell for various applications, including medical diagnostics. Canines have been successfully trained to detect certain diseases, such as cancers, by sensing specific VOCs present in human  breath, urine, and other bodily fluids. Similarly, certain insects, like ants, have displayed remarkable olfactory capabilities and have shown potential for rapid training in scent detection tasks. Training insects, such as ants, may offer certain advantages compared to dogs, such as potentially being less resource-intensive in terms of time and cost. Ants can be trained using classical conditioning techniques, where they form associations between specific scents and rewards, making them capable of detecting particular VOCs associated with diseases like cancer. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that while insects have shown promise in research settings, the practical implementation of ant-based scent detection systems for medical diagnostics is still in its early stages. There are various challenges that need to be addressed, including developing reliable and consistent training methods, ensuring accuracy and specificity in detecting disease-related VOCs, and accounting for individual differences in ants' detection abilities.

Insects possess several advantages over dogs and other vertebrates in certain research or practical applications, particularly in controlled conditions and behavioural studies. One notable advantage is their ease of rearing in controlled laboratory environments. With short lifespans, rapid reproduction, and minimal space and resource requirements, insects are a convenient option for experimental purposes. Moreover, their cost-effectiveness compared to larger animals like dogs makes them appealing for scientific research and various applications. Insects’ strength lies in their well-developed olfactory system, especially observed in species like fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster). This makes them valuable subjects for investigating sensory perception and olfaction mechanisms. Additionally, their ability to be bred in large numbers allows researchers to conduct experiments with significant sample sizes, leading to more robust and statistically significant results. Insects' simple nervous systems enable fast learning and conditioning, making them suitable for studies involving associative learning or classical conditioning paradigms. Furthermore, using insects for research or practical applications often raises fewer ethical concerns than using vertebrate animals like dogs, making them a more attractive option in terms of animal welfare.

The concept of using ants as biodetectors for cancer is fascinating and warrants further investigation. The initial study demonstrated that ants can be trained to detect a specific type of cancer, raising the question of whether they can apply this ability to other kinds of cancer as well. This potential shows promise for developing an efficient and cost-effective method for cancer detection in the future. However, it is essential to conduct thorough research and validation, including using human samples to verify the ants’ abilities accurately. The idea of ants being fast learners and easy to maintain as bio-detectors is intriguing, but it is crucial to note that this is still a ‘proof of concept’ at this stage. Further studies are required to evaluate the reliability and effectiveness of using ants for cancer detection. Moreover, ethical considerations and regulatory approvals should be taken into account before considering its application in real-world healthcare scenarios. In conclusion, while the notion of using ants for cancer detection holds promise, extensive research and testing are necessary to ensure its accuracy, safety, and practicality in clinical settings.

--Issue 53--

Author Bio

Sumel Ashique

Sumel Ashique has been working as an assistant professor in Pandaveswar School of Pharmacy, West Bengal, India. He has 3 years of teaching experience. He has achieved 50+ publications of International and national accredited reputed journals (Scopus, UGC). He has knowledge in drug delivery, nanotechnology and targeted treatment strategy. He has also 4 granted patents from IP and Australia, 6 published book chapters in International Books and 12 book chapters have been submitted to well-known publishers like Springer, Elsevier, Bentham and Taylor & Francis. Currently he has edited 2 books under CRC Press, Taylor and Francis.

Farzad Taghizadeh-Hesary

Farzad Taghizadeh-Hesary (MD) is an Assistant Professor of Radiation Oncology and Iran University of Medical Sciences. His areas of expertise are clinical oncology and cancer biology. He specifically works on the role of mitochondria in cancer biology and treatment. He also serves as an Editorial Board member of ten indexed journals.

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