Honeybees can detect lung cancer, researchers say

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What happens when you pair honeybees and halitosis? Potentially a life-saving new method to screen for cancer, according to one study.

Researchers at Michigan State University have learned that honeybees can detect chemicals associated with lung cancer in human breath. The insects were able to sniff out human lung cancer biomarkers with a remarkable 82% success rate, according to a study published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics. 

“These results indicate that the honeybee olfactory system can be used as a sensitive biological gas sensor to detect human lung cancer,” the study authors wrote. 

“Insects have an amazing sense of smell the same way dogs do,” said MSU professor Debajit Saha, according to an MSU news release.

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A honeybee drinking nectar from a flower in Markham, Ontario, Canada. (Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Saha, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering and MSU’s Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering, sought to determine whether honeybees could distinguish chemicals in a healthy person’s breath from that of someone sick with lung cancer

His team developed a “recipe” for a synthetic breath mixture that contained six compounds present in the breath of someone with cancer and a synthetic “healthy” breath mixture.

“It took a steady hand to create the recipe,” said Elyssa Cox, Saha’s former lab manager. “We tested the synthetic lung cancer versus healthy human breath mixtures on approximately 20 bees.”

The researchers placed each live bee in a custom 3D-printed harness and attached a tiny electrode to its brain to measure activity. 

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Concept photo showing lung cancer

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide. An estimated 235,580 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2024 in the U.S., according to the Lung Cancer Research Foundation.  (Mohammed Haneefa Nizamudeen/iStock)

“We pass those odors on to the antenna of the honeybees and recorded the neural signals from their brain,” said Saha. “We see a change in the honeybee’s neural firing response.”

The researchers found that the bees were able to detect the cancer-indicating compounds even in small amounts. 

“The honeybees detected very small concentrations; it was a very strong result,” said Saha. “Bees can differentiate between minute changes in the chemical concentrations of the breath mixture, which is in the parts per 1 billion range.”

The bees also could tell the difference between the synthetic lung cancer breath and healthy breath.

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Honeybee approaches catmint plant

A honey bee visits a blooming catmint plant growing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Scientists hope this research will lead to the development of a sensor based on a honeybee brain that can be used to test human breath for the presence of lung cancer.

“What’s amazing is the honeybees’ ability to not only detect cancer cells, but also distinguish between cell lines of various types of lung cancer,” said Autumn McLane-Svoboda, a graduate student on Saha’s team. “The future implications for this are huge, as our sensor could allow for patients to receive specific cancer diagnoses quickly, which is imperative for correct treatment routes.”

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death worldwide. An estimated 235,580 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2024 in the U.S., according to the Lung Cancer Research Foundation. 

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Smoking is the leading risk factor for lung cancer and is responsible for 80% of lung cancer deaths. 

Early detection of high-risk lung cancer can reduce the chance of death by up to 20%.