Scientists create a plague of cancer-sniffing cyber-locusts

In a recent draft study from the journal of Biology titled "Harnessing insect olfactory neural circuits for noninvasive detection of human cancer," a team of scientists describe how they figured out how to hack the brains of locusts and train them to sniff out cancer in human beings.

As Technology Review explained:

The researchers chose to work with locusts because these insects have been well studied in recent years. In a preliminary setup, they surgically exposed the brain of a living locust. Saha and his colleagues then inserted electrodes into lobes of the brain that receive signals from the insects' antennae, which they use to sense odors.

The team also grew three different types of human oral cancer cells, as well as human mouth cells that were cancer-free. They used a device to capture gas emitted by each of the cell types, and delivered each of these to the locusts' antennae.

The locusts' brains responded to each of the cell types differently. The patterns of electrical activity recorded were so distinct that when the team puffed the gas from one cell type onto the antennae, they could correctly identify whether the cells were cancerous from the recording alone.

It is the first time a living insect brain has been tested as a tool to detect cancer, says Saha.

As much as this sounds like a horror sci-fi film waiting to happen … it's also kinda cool and exciting.

Harnessing insect olfactory neural circuits for noninvasive detection of human cancer [Alexander Farnum, Michael Parnas, Ehsanul Hoque Apu, Elyssa Cox, Noël Lefevre, Christopher H. Contag, Debajit Saha / BioRXIV]

A locust's brain has been hacked to sniff out cancer [Jessica Hamzelou / Technology Review]

Image: DataBase Center for Life Science (DBCLS) / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 4.0)