Michigan State University researchers have discovered that honeybees can detect biomarkers associated with lung cancer in human breath.

RT’s Three Key Takeaways:

  1. Honeybees can detect biomarkers associated with lung cancer in human breath samples.
  2. The bees were able to distinguish between lung cancer cell types based solely on the scent of the cell cultures.
  3. The findings could lead to the development of new non-invasive diagnostic tests for early lung cancer detection using honeybees’ exceptional sense of smell.

Michigan State University researchers have discovered that honeybees can detect biomarkers or chemical concentrations associated with lung cancer in human breath

The researchers have also shown that the honeybees can distinguish between different lung cancer cell types using only the ‘smell’ of the cell cultures. These findings could be used as a model for developing new tests to diagnose lung cancer early, according to the researchers.

“Insects have an amazing sense of smell the same way dogs do,” says Debajit Saha, PhD, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering and Michigan State University’s Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering.

The research was published in the Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

Distinguishing Chemicals in Human Breath

Saha and his team wanted to see if honeybees could distinguish between the chemicals in human breath from someone who was healthy compared to someone with lung cancer. Elyssa Cox, Saha’s former lab manager, and Michael Parnas, a doctoral candidate working in Saha’s lab, developed a “recipe” for a synthetic breath mixture using different levels of six compounds such as trichloroethylene and 2-methylheptane to create the chemical makeup of the breath of someone with lung cancer and a synthetic healthy breath mixture. 

A honeybee in the 3D-printed harness. Credit: Saha lab

“It took a steady hand to create the recipe,” says Cox in a release. “We tested the synthetic lung cancer versus healthy human breath mixtures on approximately 20 bees.”

Cox helped design a custom 3D-printed harness to hold a live honeybee while she attached a 

tiny electrode to its brain to measure any changes in the bee’s brain signals. “We pass those odors on to the antenna of the honeybees and recorded the neural signals from their brain,” says Saha in a release. “We see a change in the honeybee’s neural firing response.”

Testing Levels and Types of Cancer-Indicating Compounds

The researchers also wanted to measure how much of the cancer-indicating compounds needed to be present in someone’s breath for the honeybee to detect cancer. “The honeybees detected very small concentrations; it was a very strong result,” says Saha in a release. “Bees can differentiate between minute changes in the chemical concentrations of the breath mixture which is in the parts per 1 billion range.”

Honeybee smelling odor sample. Credit Saha lab

Parnas analyzed the neural data and saw the spikes in the bees’ brain signals. “We can see differences in how the honeybees are smelling,” said Parnas in a release. “We detected several different neurons firing in the honeybees’ brains that clearly differentiated between the synthetic lung cancer breath and healthy breath.”

Another graduate student from Saha’s team, Autumn McLane-Svoboda, and an undergrad, Summer McLane-Svoboda, jointly led the human lung cancer cell culture experiments with the help of Christopher Contag, PhD, director of Michigan State University’s Institute for Quantitative Health Science and Engineering, and his lab. 

Opening the Doors to New Technologies

For these experiments, different types of human lung cancer cell cultures were grown in closed, airtight flasks, and the honeybee brain-based sensor was used to test the odor of the lung cancer cells. The researchers have successfully demonstrated that using this honeybee brain-based sensor can distinguish between small cell lung cancer, non-small lung cancer cells, and healthy cells. 

“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,” says McLane-Svoboda in a release. “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.”

Saha envisions this work will open the door for more biological and smell-based disease detection technologies. In the future, Saha’s team plans to develop a noninvasive test that only requires patients breathe into a device, and the sensor inside, based on honeybee brains, would analyze the breath and wirelessly report back in real time if cancer chemicals are present.

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