Six-Legged Saviors: Bees Trained to Detect Cancer

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Could bees tell from the smell of your breath whether you have cancer? That sounds like an absurd question, but according to researcher Susana Soares, bees can be trained to detect biomarkers associated within certain diseases within an astounding ten minute span. Soares is working on a project that involves placing bees inside a blown glass object, into which a person exhales.

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Soares designed two different glass objects that act as vessels for both bees and human breath; a small chamber within the main object acts as the ‘diagnosis space.’ If the bees flying within the main chamber detect certain compounds they were previously trained to target, they’ll rush into the smaller chamber.

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Soares explains that the bees are trained to do this using Pavlov’s reflex. The biomarkers of certain diseases have a particular smell that bees are able to pick up on. A certain group of bees is placed in a chamber, which is flooded with a particular scent. They’re then fed a sugar solution so they associate this scent with a food reward. That way, when they detect it in a person’s breath, they’ll flock to the inner chamber.

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The researcher envisions a system of bee centers where the insects can be raised and trained before their use in an adjacent clinic for health tests. Scientific research has shown that bees are highly accurate in detecting the biomarkers of a wide variety of diseases including diabetes, tuberculosis and lung cancer.