Tech still in research phase; has not been peer-reviewed

Lab claims it teaches rats to detect lung cancer with 93% accuracy by sniffing urine

Making practical use of the fact that cancers have odors, rat-powered testing could be available within about 14 months, says the team at Israeli startup Early

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

A rat at the lab of Early, where the rodents detect lung cancer (courtesy of Early)
A rat at the lab of Early, where the rodents detect lung cancer (courtesy of Early)

Rats are being taught to detect cancer by smell-testing urine samples, and are doing so with 93 percent accuracy, an Israeli startup said.

The startup Early, which raised $6.2 million in investment last year, hopes that rats trained with its patented system will be used around the world to process samples that people can provide from the comfort of their own homes.

“We train the rats, and then they sit inside a pod next to a platform which is similar to a conveyer belt,” the company’s founder and CEO Dr. Michal Mark Danieli told The Times of Israel.

“A cartridge with urine arrives, they hear a beep, and know to put their head in the cartridge to smell.

“If a rat takes its head out, that is a sign that the sample is clear of lung cancer, while if it keeps its head in, this means that the person who gave the sample has lung cancer.”

He added that the technology is still in the research phase but “if all goes well it should be about 14 months until we can market this.”

The accuracy rate means that in 93 out of 100 samples, the rats are correct regarding whether the urine comes from someone with or without lung cancer. The figure comes from the company’s research, which has not been peer-reviewed.

Mark Danieli said that the rats are as accurate as X-rays called low dose CT scans that are currently used to screen for lung cancer. As the urine sample can be given at home and mailed in for processing, this could potentially eliminate waiting for screening, she said.

As with low dose CTs, people who appear to have cancer based on the rat tests will be referred for further checks, for example a biopsy.

Mark Danieli said that the startup uses on the fact that cancers have their own scents, and that rats have a highly honed ability to detect odor.

“It has been known for some time that each cancer has its own odor signature. And we know that rats have an amazing sense of smell,” she said.

“In fact, they are 1,000 times more sensitive in terms of smelling than any man-made device. Our research so far has identified lung cancer, and we expect to continue on to detect different types of cancer with high accuracy. This could become a common testing method,” she said.

Urine samples being prepared for testing by rats at the lab of Early, where the rodents detect lung cancer (courtesy of Early)

“And if this happens, it could save lives, because by giving easy access to early diagnosis, it can catch more cancer at Stage 1 when it is treatable with the highest success. This could be a simple test that people provide from home every few months, with no need to wait for appointments.”

Dr. Michal Mark Danieli, CEO of Early, a startup that uses rats to detect cancer (courtesy of Early)

She declined to discuss details of the training system, as this is key intellectual property of the company. However, she stressed that it uses only “positive reinforcement” and there are no punishments for the rats.

“They live in spacious cages and seem to enjoy work — they come running to the entrance of the cage when it’s time to go to samples,” she said.

The training method has a patent in Israel and is patent pending in several European countries and in the US. The rats are sterile, and are the 15th generation bred in the company. There are currently 30 rats, and each has the name of a famous soccer star — though Danieli declined to say who, in case any soccer fans feel it is disrespectful toward their heroes.

The Netanya facility with the rats receives regular deliveries of urine samples from five Israeli hospitals and two institutions in Korea. New agreements mean samples will soon start arriving from New York and London.

The company’s lead zoologist, Dr. Itay Berger, said that the training system lasts for four months from birth, and takes advantage of two key qualities of rats.

“Rats have 40% more odor receptor genes than dogs,” he said. ”But apart from their amazing sense of smell, rats are super intelligent, and they are extremely fast learners.”

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