Researchers at Michigan State Universityin the United States, have shown that lobsters can not only “sniff” the difference between cancer cells and healthy cellsthey can also distinguish between different cancer cell lines.
Scientists say the discovery could serve as the basis for devices that use insect sensory neurons to enable early detection of cancer using only the patient’s breath.
Although such devices are not on the immediate horizon, aren’t as far-fetched as they seemsaid the authors of the new research shared on May 25 on the website BioRxiv.
Part of the reason is that people have become accustomed to technology that augments or exceeds our natural senses. For instance, telescopes and microscopes they reveal worlds that would otherwise be invisible.
Noses are always state of the art
The success of engineered devices can make it easy to overlook the performance of our natural toolsespecially the sensory organ right in front of our eyes.
“Noses are always state-of-the-art,” says Debajit Saha, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at MSU. “There really is nothing like them in gas detection“, To add.
The dog experience
This is why science trusts in dogs and their super sniffers to detect odors indicative of drugs, explosives and, more recently, health issues including low blood sugar and even Covid-19.
Scientists are working on technology that can mimic the sense of smell, but nothing they’ve designed can match the speed, sensitivity and specificity of ancient organic smell.
“People have been working on ‘electronic noses’ for over 15 years, but they are still a long way from achieving what biology can do without problems”said Saha, who also works at the Institute of Quantitative Health Sciences and Engineering.
This lack of gas detection devices creates an opportunity when deals with the early detection of diseases, especially those like cancer, where early intervention can save lives.
When cancer is detected at an early stage, patients have Between 80% and 90% chance of survival. But if undetected until stage 4, those numbers drop to between 10% and 20%.
Cancer cells function differently from healthy cells and create different chemical compounds as they function and grow. If these chemicals reach a patient’s lungs or airways, the compounds can be detected in the exhaled breath.
“Theoretically, you could breathe through a device, and it would be able to detect and differentiate between multiple types of cancer and even what stage the disease is at. However, such a device not ready to be used yet in a clinical setting,” Saha said.
A new approach
Saha and her team are developing a new approach. Instead of trying to design something that works like biology, they thought: why not start with the solutions that biology has already built after eons of evolution and design from there?
The team essentially hacks into the insect’s brain for use in disease diagnosis. “It’s a new frontier that’s almost unchartedSaha said.
Saha and her team chose to work with locusts as a biological component for several reasons. Lobsters have served the scientific community as model organisms, like fruit flies, for decades. The researchers developed a significant understanding of their olfactory sensors and the corresponding neural circuits. And, compared to fruit flies, locusts are bigger and stronger.
This combination of features allows MSU researchers to place electrodes in the brains of lobsters with relative ease. The scientists then recorded the insects’ responses to samples of gases produced by healthy cells and cancer cells, then used these signals to create chemical profiles of the different cells.