Bees help in the battle against tuberculosis
Thursday 27 Oct 2011 6:40 a.m.
By Kloe Palmer
It's no surprise bees have extraordinary noses, since they can detect pollen from a mile away.
Believe it or not, in some airports they are even being used to sniff out explosives and drugs, and as some Christchurch scientists are discovering soon honey bees might be able to add diagnosing tuberculosis to their CVs.
Hand picked honey bees have no idea they could revolutionise the way Tuberculosis is diagnosed. Believe it or not, humans with the lethal infectious disease have sweet floral smelling breath. People can't smell it, but bees can.
“When we tested them with the tuberculosis odours we found the bees can still smell it down to parts per billion,” says Max Suckling.
Christchurch zoologists are training bees to associate the smell of the disease with a sweet treat and to stick out their tongues when it's present.
Worldwide new TB infections occur at a rate of one per second. Right now it's diagnosed medically by expensive tests and with the disease being most common in poverty stricken areas, using bees instead could make a real difference.
“I think the key is resource poor settings is getting something that cost cents rather than tens of dollars even, in some places the whole budget for health per person might just be a few dollars a year,” says infectious diseases specialist Dr Steve Chambers.
Dr Chambers believes the bees could feature inside a cheap, rapid and non-invasive home screening test which could indicate whether a person needs medical attention. “The key thing is can you identify people who have it and are infecting other people, you identify them early, cheaply, easily and quickly and move them onto treatment programmes that could make a dent in how it's transmitted around the world,” he says.
It's too early to say whether GPs could be keeping sniffer bees in the surgery, but one day they could be the key to detecting an illness that kills almost two million people each year.