Honeybees Can Sniff Out Lung Cancer, Scientists Suggest

New research opens the door for doctors to one day use bees as a living diagnostic tool

a honeybee on a yellow leaf in profile, looking left
Honeybees have a very good sense of smell. Sharp Photography via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

Honeybees are often hailed as heroes for pollinating crops that feed the world. But as it turns out, these buzzy insects might have another useful trick up their sleeves: sniffing out cancer.

Laboratory experiments suggest honeybees can identify lung cancer using their keen sense of smell, researchers report this month in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

Scientists have long known that animals can detect diseases through scents. Diabetic alert dogs can smell when their human’s blood sugar is too low or too high, and ants can be trained to smell cancer in urine, for example. Dogs can also learn to sniff out cancer from saliva samples.

For the new study, researchers were curious about the disease-detecting abilities of honeybees, which they say could serve as a more affordable and lower-maintenance alternative to cancer-sniffing dogs, reports CBS News’ Kelly Vaughen.

The team held honeybees in place using wax and 3D-printed plastic harnesses, then attached electrodes to the part of their brains that processes odors. Then, they exposed the bees’ antennae to different aerosolized mixtures: one that mimicked the compounds found in the breath of a lung cancer patient, and another that represented the breath of a healthy person.

In response to the scents, the bees’ brains produced different electrical signals. Looking at these signals, researchers could distinguish between the two types of artificial breath at least 93 percent of the time.

The bees were able to tell the difference between the two types of synthetic breath, even at “very small concentrations,” says study co-author Debajit Saha, a biomedical engineer at Michigan State University, in a statement.

“Bees can differentiate between minute changes in the chemical concentrations of the breath mixture, which is in the parts per one billion range,” he adds.

The team also conducted a separate experiment to see if the bees could distinguish between two different types of cancer—small cell lung cancer, which is a rarer and fast-growing variety, and non-small cell lung cancer. The bees passed that test with flying colors, too.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” says Brian Peterson-Roest, co-founder and president of Bees in the D, a Detroit-based pollinator education and conservation nonprofit, to CBS News. He was not involved in the study.

In the future, the team hopes to run similar experiments using real breath exhaled by cancer patients.

But already, their findings could open the door for doctors to one day use honeybees as diagnostic tools. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths around the world, responsible for an estimated 1.8 million deaths in 2022. Diagnosing lung cancer early can dramatically increase patients’ survival rates.

Though engineers are developing electronic devices that can “smell” the difference between chemical compounds, as of right now, the team says they’re still no substitute for mother nature.

“Biology has this ability to differentiate between very, very similar mixtures, which no other engineered sensors can do,” Saha tells Science News’ Meghan Rosen.

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