U.K.-based product designer Susana Soares has created a simple, elegant way of harnessing bees to screen for a number of diseases, including cancers, like tumors of the lung and ovaries. Her glass apparatus, called “Bee’s,” features a large chamber and a smaller connected chamber housed within it. After training the bees to associate a specific chemical odor with a food reward, such as sugar, the insects are released into the diagnostic device through an opening. Patients would simply blow into the smaller compartment and wait to see if a swarm gathers toward something alarming in the person’s breath.
The project, part of her master’s thesis at London’s Royal College of Art, began in 2007 when Soares came across research on bees and their phenomenal olfactory abilities. After talking to researchers in the field, she learned that certain diseases, such as lung cancer, noticeably alter the composition of bodily fluids, producing odorous compounds that show up in urine and sometimes blood. Some investigators have even been experimenting with various sensory methods to home in on these “biomarkers.” In Philadelphia, for instance, scientists have trained mice to identify the scent of lung cancer. Trained dogs have also been used to sniff out ovarian cancer. Others have focused on replicating these animal abilities in electronic nose devices that are calibrated to pick up these biomarkers undetectable to human noses.