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Michigan researches say honey bees can detect lung cancer

Honey bees can detect lung cancer, Michigan researchers say
Honey bees can detect lung cancer, Michigan researchers say 03:04

(CBS DETROIT) - Researchers at Michigan State University have found that honey bees could detect lung cancer.

Bees have long provided humans with honey, wax, and the pollination of around 80% of our flowering plants, but they could also sniff out cancer in the future.

Dogs have been used as a medical diagnostic tool, as they can sense seizures, among other things. However, MSU researchers said bees also have an incredible sense of smell, are cheaper, and require less training and upkeep than dogs.

The process starts with brain surgery on the live bees, done under a microscope.

"You definitely notice how much your hands shake," said Michael Parnas, a Ph.D candidate at Michigan State University.

He said they used a 3D-printed harness to hold the live bee as they opened its head to the part of its brain dealing with smell.

"And we can plant an electrode in there to basically record how those are responding as we present odors to the insect.

Parnas said they then presented the bees with a mixture replicating the breath of someone with lung cancer, using lab-grown human cancer cells. They found bees could detect biomarkers or chemical concentrations associated with cancer.

The insects were not only able to distinguish between cancer and healthy breath but could also differentiate between the six different types of lung cancer cells they smelled. They could also detect very small concentrations of cancer.

"Think like one molecule in a swimming pool sort of concentrations," Parnas said.

 "It doesn't surprise me at all," said Brian Peterson-Roest, the co-founder and president of Bees in the D.  

Bees in the D is a nonprofit that provides education and conservation for pollinators. Peterson-Roest said bees have an incredible sense of smell. 

"It's kind of funny, I tell people. With my truck, there's all kinds of bee smells because I take honey frames and stuff like that. Literally within a minute if not 30 seconds, bees start showing up. Because they can smell those different odorants that are in the back of my truck," he said.

He said bees are crucial for our food industry and ecosystem and could soon be for our healthcare. 

MSU researchers said the science on cancer detection is early, but they hope that based on their findings, people could soon get a noninvasive early-detection cancer test.

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