The ants were able to sniff out the disease in people’s urine, as some cancers are known to alter the smell.
Despite not having noses, ants are known to have an abundance of olfactory receptors within their antennae, making them adept at smelling and able to detect tumours.
The research, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, hopes the insects could prove to be a cost-effective measure in early detection of cancer for the future.
What the study found
Previous testing has found that ants were able to “sniff out” human cancer cells grown in a lab in the research by Professor Patrizia d’Ettorre and colleagues.
This new study builds on that previous experiment, which involved 70 ants investigating urine samples from mice.
Some of the samples had tumours and others did not, with the ants shown to be able to detect the differences.
Researchers placed a drop of sugar water in front of the samples and were able to train the ants to associate the smell of tumours with a reward.
They found that, when they removed the sugar water, the ants then lingered around the cancerous samples for roughly 20 per cent longer as they were looking for their reward.
After only three training rounds, lasting 10 minutes in total, the ants were able to lock in the smell association.
The discovery has been hailed a massive step forward in early detection of cancer as cancer-smelling dogs take around six months to detect the disease.
“Ants can be used as a bio-detectors to discriminate healthy individuals from tumour-bearing ones,” said study author Prof d’Ettorre, of Sorbonne Paris Nord University, France.
She continued: “They are easy to train, learn fast, are very efficient and are not expensive to keep.”
Scientists’ next steps will be to see if the ants can also detect cancerous tumours in human urine.