Tuan C. Nguyen in Smithsonian:
Bees possess a sense of smell 100 times more sensitive than the human nose. With 170 odor receptors at their disposal, they're able to recognize the presence of faint metabolic gases emitted by cancer cells during the earliest stages of disease. A handful of scientists are looking into ways that insects might better relay this information, and are keen to incorporate bugs with this unique ability in a clinical setting. Researchers at the University of Georgia, for instance, have invented a handheld device containing parasitic wasps trained to move toward certain odors. They then use computer software that analyzes film of the wasps' movements to determine which patterns indicate that a smell has been positively identified. As I covered late last year, Christina Soares, a British industrial designer, applied an elegant approach to behavioral training, in developing a glass apparatus called Bee's. She made it so that merely introducing gases containing disease biomarkers, like a patient's breath, would cause a colony of bees to swarm into the test chamber.
But perhaps the most promising method for using insects to diagnose tumors comes from a recent experiment carried out by researchers from the University of Konstanz in Germany and the University La Sapienza in Italy, which demonstrated that fruit flies can be genetically modified to glow the moment they come in contact with these volatile molecules. It doesn’t get more straightforward than that. A fruit fly possesses less than half as many odor-sensing receptors as a bee, but its olfactory system is apparently still sensitive enough to distinguish cancerous cells from healthy ones, according to the team's report. Moreover, the researchers found that the receptor neurons on the flies' antennae were able to differentiate between five types of breast cancer.