Researchers hack locust brains to help diagnose cancer

The lack of gas-sensing devices creates a great opportunity when it comes to the early detection and intervention of diseases like cancer. When it is caught in its first stage, patients have an 80 percent to 90 percent chance of survival. But if it’s detected much later, until stage 4, the numbers drop to 10 percent to 20 percent.

Cancer cells create different compounds as they work and grow, differently than healthy cells. If these chemicals make it to a patient’s lungs or airways, then the compounds can be detected in exhaled breath.

“Theoretically, you could breathe into a device, and it would be able to detect and differentiate multiple cancer types and even which stage the disease is in. However, such a device isn’t yet close to being used in a clinical setting,” Saha said.

So Saha and his team are developing a new approach.

The research, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, has been published on BioRxiv.

But, the researchers didn’t want to engineer something that worked exactly like biology. Instead, they considered starting with the solutions biology has built after years of evolution, and then engineering them accordingly. According to Saha, the team is “hacking” the insect brain to use it for disease diagnosis.

“This is a new frontier that’s almost unexplored,” he said.

Saha and his team chose to work with locusts as their biological component. The insects have served the scientific community as model organisms for decades. Researchers already have an understanding of their olfactory sensors and corresponding neural circuits. This allowed the MSU researchers to easily attach electrodes to locust brains. The scientists then recorded the insects’ responses to gas samples produced by healthy cells and cancer cells and then used those signals to create chemical profiles of the different cells.

Previously, Saha led research that detected explosives with locusts. This work factored into an MSU search committee recruiting Saha, said Christopher Contag, the director of IQ.

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