Article image

Honeybees can sniff out lung cancer

We all know honeybees for their role in pollinating our crops and producing honey. But who knew these tiny creatures might be instrumental in saving human lives? Recent groundbreaking research from Michigan State University (MSU) suggests that honeybees can detect lung cancer through the smell of human breath.

Honeybees, medical diagnostics and cancer

While the concept of using honeybees to detect cancer may seem unusual, it builds upon previous research showing animals can detect diseases through scent. Researchers have previously trained dogs to identify various medical conditions, including certain cancers, by smelling biological samples or breath.

Inspired by this, researchers at Michigan State University sought to determine if honeybees, known for their sensitive olfactory systems, could also be employed for disease detection.

They focused on lung cancer, hypothesizing that unique chemical compounds in the breath of individuals with the disease could be identified by the bees.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers developed a synthetic mixture that mimicked the breath of lung cancer patients. This mixture included compounds identified in previous studies as potential biomarkers for lung cancer, such as trichloroethylene and 2-methylheptane.

Honeybees and cancer detection

To conduct their experiment, the MSU research team developed a unique setup for monitoring the honeybees’ responses.

They designed and 3D printed specialized harnesses to gently restrain the bees without causing them harm. Tiny electrodes were then carefully implanted into the bees’ brains, allowing the researchers to monitor their neural activity in real time.

With the bees safely secured and their brain activity monitored, the researchers introduced the synthetic breath mixtures to the bees.

By exposing the bees to both the lung cancer breath mimic and the healthy breath control, they could compare the neural responses and identify any differences that might indicate the bees’ ability to detect the disease.

The results were astounding. “We see a change in the honeybee’s neural firing response,” Saha noted. The bees could not only detect the presence of cancer-associated chemicals but also differentiate between different types of lung cancer cells.

Honeybee’s nose for cancer precision

What’s even more remarkable is the sensitivity of the bees’ olfactory system. “The honeybees detected very small concentrations; it was a very strong result,” Saha explained.

“Bees can differentiate between minute changes in the chemical concentrations of the breath mixture which is in the parts per 1 billion range.”

Michael Parnas, a doctoral candidate involved in the study, analyzed the neural data and confirmed the differences in the bees’ responses to healthy and cancerous breath.

“We detected several different neurons firing in the honeybees’ brains that clearly differentiated between the synthetic lung cancer breath and healthy breath,” he said.

Future of lung cancer diagnosis

The research doesn’t stop at breath analysis. The MSU team also investigated the bees’ ability to detect lung cancer cells in culture.

“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,” noted Autumn McLane-Svoboda, a graduate student involved in the research.

These findings could revolutionize lung cancer diagnosis. The researchers envision a future where patients simply breathe into a device equipped with a honeybee brain-based sensor.

The sensor would analyze the breath in real-time and wirelessly report the presence of cancer-associated chemicals, leading to early detection and timely treatment.

Beyond lung cancer

Saha and his team believe their research could pave the way for the development of other smell-based disease detection technologies.

“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,” said McLane-Svoboda.

The use of honeybees in medical diagnostics is an exciting and promising new frontier. While further research and development are needed before this technology becomes a reality, the potential impact is enormous. Honeybees, those humble pollinators, could play a critical role in the fight against lung cancer and other diseases.

In the meantime, this research serves as a reminder of the incredible complexity and potential of the natural world. Who knows what other secrets honeybees and other creatures might hold, just waiting to be discovered?

The study is published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates. 

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day