How A Fruit Fly Could Save Your Life

Researchers are exploring how the sensitive olfactory systems of insects might help detect cancer in humans:

[P]erhaps 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 dish_fruitfly 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.

For the study, detailed in the journal Nature, the investigators devised a machine that blew the odor emitted from five different strains of lab-grown breast cancer cells, along with healthy in vitro human breast tissue, over an area containing the flies. They then used a microscope to examine the fluorescent patterns that became visible on the flies’ antennae as their receptor neurons detected the odors.

(Photo of orange fruit fly by Chun Xing Wong)