It’s been known for some time that some animals can actually sniff out cancer.

Easily the most unpretentious on that list is the lowly fruit fly.

Cancer cells have a different metabolism from normal cells that results in them emitting odors so slightly unlike that, apparently, only a tiny olfactory system can sense it. Still, how does a minute insect convey that to researchers and medical personnel?

In 2014, a German team found a solution:

Studies have been underway since then to create a finely tuned electronic scent detector that could put fruit flies out of a job. The idea is to conduct non-invasive wellness checks by evaluating a patient’s skin, breath, urine, and so forth.

If successful, this would increase the range of potentially catching the disease early and beginning treatment at a point that would offer a greater chance of success.

However, other researchers have pursued the possibility of keeping fruit flies involved:

This may ultimately lead to a breakthrough, but unfortunately, it’ll come too late to help Mr Beeninga. He passed away in October 2014 as a result of his cancer.

As with most medical research, progress is painstakingly gradual, but fruit flies have been instrumental in finding cures for cancer. For instance:

  • Teams at University College London and the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing in Cologne, Germany have seen promising signs in a cancer drug lengthening life.
  • Another group at Fordham is pursuing the fruit fly’s role in curing prostate cancer.
  • An international team led by the University of Missouri has found the fruit fly may hold the key to curing cervical cancer.

This little insect is so popular in medical circles because about 75% of human disease-causing genes are found in the fly in a similar form.

Yes, they can be annoying … and good sport for your more advanced pets …

… but it may well come down to those humble fruit flies to solve the riddle of mankind’s most insidious disease.

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