Last year, 2012, there had been much press about service dogs being trained as cancer detectors, by virtue of the canine ability to 'sniff out' any abnormalities. Now there's new buzz about bees and their phenomenal olfactory sense. Indeed, a bee's acute sensitivity is demonstrated by its ability to detect the faintest of odors -- even just a few molecules present in a room.
Like their canine counterparts, bees have been taught to detect methamphetamines and certain ingredients in explosives. Bees have likewise already been trained to effectively diagnose tuberculosis and diabetes.
Now a British-based product designer, Susana Soares, has crafted a glass apparatus that can harness the bees' ability to screen for cancer. Soares explains that glass conveniently makes for transparency. "To know the results of a breath test, you'd have to see the behavior of the insects," Soares said. "Everything is about their behavior."
Her device -- appropriately called "Bee's" -- features a small compartment connected and housed within a larger chamber. Bees are taught to associate chemical odors with a food reward (e.g. sugar), and then the insects are released into the diagnostic chamber. Patients need only blow into the smaller chamber and then observe whether the swarm gathers toward anything of interest in the person's breath.
Soares began the project in 2007 as part of her master's thesis at London's Royal College of Art. While there, she learned that certain diseases (e.g. lung cancer) alter the composition of bodily fluids in such way as to produce odorous compounds that can be found in urine or blood, thus making them "biomarkers." These biomarkers, undetectable to human noses, nonetheless make it possible to train dogs to sniff out ovarian cancer, and even a Philadelphia team of scientists have mice trained to detect lung cancer. Still other researchers have devised electronic devices calibrated to pick up these biomarkers.
Unfortunately, electronic nose devices have trouble detecting odors in complicated conditions, and sniffer dogs are accurate only 71 percent of the time despite a span of three months' training. This is where the bees have clear advantage: they have been documented to have an accuracy of 98 percent -- and they only need a training span of ten minutes!
However, Soares has indicated that mass-producing her prototype for large-scale applications has been a challenge. "I think there's only four labs in the world doing research into insects for disease screening, which shows you that this approach doesn't go over well in the western world," she conveyed. "Medical and health technologies are a big business, and the bottom line is they just don't see how something like this can be profitable."
University of Georgia agricultural professor Glen C. Rains agrees. Rains faced similar challenges while developing his Wasp Hound, a device that utilizes five wasps to detect the presence of bed bugs. His system employs a camera to record the wasps' behavior, and the data is then analyzed by software to determine results. After more than a decade of research and development, engineering firm Bennett Aerospace has at last teamed up with Rains to make his technology more widely accessible.
"The whole notion is definitely something people find fascinating... But once you get into how it would work or how they make money, there's no model for how it would be done," elucidated Rains.
Rains revealed that while there's already an infrastructure in place for electronic technologies, the same cannot be said of disease screening systems based on insects. This lack of infrastructure makes industry players hesitant to forge business partnerships. For instance, facilities would need to find ways to efficiently obtain odor samples for training, and a beekeeper would be needed on-site for handling and training the bees. Also, the bees' willingness to buzz toward the biomarkers diminish significantly over time, thus posing a new challenge with retraining.
Still, Rains mentions that enlisting the help of bugs for clinical purposes is not unheard of, given that maggots and leaches were used as accepted medical practice in previous centuries.
Soares, meanwhile, is aware that only a few charities have remotely shown interest in her academic work. But she is still hopeful that someone with the right resources is willing to financially transform her academic work into industry reality. "It has the potential to save so many lives," she said. "It can even be an open-source concept, so for anyone who is interested, I'd be happy to talk."