Rats & Bees Can Find TB
By Lucy GoodchildWhat do honey bees and giant African rats have in common? No it’s not a joke, just the results of some surprising research. Scientists in the UK and Belgium have been training animals, specifically bees and rats, to smell out tuberculosis.
Researchers have been able to teach the animals to diagnose tuberculosis. This may seem strange, but the distinctive “TB smell” has been recognised since the time of the ancient Greeks. In On Regimen in Acute Diseases, Hippocrates mentions “the sputa… tinged with an intense colour and smell”.
A study by bee-training company Inscentinel (yes that's bee-training company Inscentinel) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has suggested that honey bees are able to differentiate between the bacterium that causes bovine TB and other closely related microbes just by sniffing them. Three bees have been conditioned to poke their tongues out when they detect certain compounds released by the bacteria, including derivatives of benzene, alkanes and methylated alkanes.
Similarly, the humanitarian research organization Apopo has been training African giant pouched rats to discriminate samples of human breath and sputum that are infected with TB from those that are not.
Preliminary tests in Tanzania suggest that the rats may prove more cost-effective and much faster than the traditional smear microscope test. Two rats were given 819 samples and 4 hours 40 minutes. They correctly diagnosed 86.5% of the 67 positive tests and gave only 10.9% false positives.
But why? Scientists hope that the bee and rat “biosensors” could be a complementary or even an alternative diagnostic tool for TB detection, which would be helpful in developing countries where resources and funds are in short supply. The World Health Organization recommends that a lab worker should process only forty samples a day, whereas a trained rat can check a hundred samples in twenty minutes.
It will be a while before every hospital employs a beekeeper, but the research is certainly not to be sniffed at. Much to our chagrin, Inscentinel have no plans to open a bee circus.
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Image: Luiz Pinheiro