Michigan State University research shows that insects can differentiate between healthy and cancerous cells;

This may help detect the disease early.

The researchers found that locusts can not only "smell" the difference between cancerous cells and healthy cells, but can also distinguish different types of cancer cells.

The researchers explained - in the press release published on the university's website on August 4, 2022 - that this work could provide the basis for devices that use insect sensory neurons to enable early detection of cancer using only the patient's breath.

The team published a summary of the results of the study on the "BioRxiv" website, before publishing it in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Technology that mimics the biological sense of smell

The university team is working to develop technology that can mimic the sense of smell, but they know that nothing synthetic can compete with the speed, sensitivity and specificity of the biological sense of smell.

"Noses are very sophisticated and there's really nothing like it when it comes to gas sensing," says Debagit Saha, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Michigan State University.

The team is essentially "hacking" the insects' brains for use in diagnosing disease (Derek Turner-MSU)

That's why we trust dogs and super-sniffer animals to detect the stimulating scents of drugs and explosives, and have also been used more recently to detect low blood sugar and even COVID-19.

He added that "researchers have been working on developing 'bionic noses' for more than 15 years, but they are still not close to achieving what biology can do smoothly."

“Early detection of cancer is very important, and we must use every possible tool to achieve this,” said Christopher Kontag, director of the Institute of Quantitative Health Sciences and Engineering, “When cancer is detected in its first stage, patients have an 80 to 90% chance of survival, but if Not discovered until stage 4, these numbers drop to between 10 and 20%.

Cancer cells release various chemical compounds

The researchers found that cancer cells function differently from healthy cells;

They create different chemical compounds as they work and grow, and if these chemicals reach a patient's lungs or airways, the compounds can be detected in exhalation.

"In theory, you could breathe through a device, and it would be able to detect and differentiate multiple types of cancer and even the stage of the disease. However, such a device is not yet close to being used in a clinical setting," Saha explained.

Researchers have worked to understand locusts' olfactory sensors and their corresponding neural circuits (Michigan State University)

Saha explained that the team is essentially "hacking" the insect's brain to use it to diagnose disease.

Saha and his team chose to work with locusts as a biological component, because for decades they have served the scientific community as model organisms such as fruit flies.

The ability of the locust's olfactory sensors

The researchers worked to understand the locusts' olfactory sensors and the corresponding neural circuits. Then, they connected the electrodes to the locusts' brains relatively easily, and recorded the insects' responses to gas samples produced by healthy cells and cancer cells, and then used those signals to create chemical profiles for the different cells.

The press release explained that one of Kontag's research axes lies in understanding why cells from oral cancers appear distinctly under his team's microscopes and optical instruments, as his laboratory found different metabolites in different cell lines, which helped calculate the visual differences between them.

And it turns out that some of those metabolites were volatile, which means they can be carried in the air and so can be smelled.

"The cells looked completely different metabolically, and they looked different visually," Kontag said. "We think it makes sense to look at them as volatiles."

The team worked to verify the ability of locusts to distinguish healthy cells from cancerous cells (Wikipedia)

The team investigated the ability of locusts to distinguish healthy cells from cancerous cells using 3 different oral cancer cell lines.

"We expected cancer cells to look different from normal cells," Kontag said. "But when the insects were able to distinguish 3 different types of cancer from each other, it was amazing."

Although the team's findings focused on oral cancers, the researchers believe their system will work with any cancer that introduces volatile metabolites into the breath, which is the case with most cancers.

In their press release, the researchers announced that they have begun collaborating with the director of the Henry Ford Head and Neck Cancer Program, Stephen Chang, to test the human breath detection system.