3 February 2014

Hive mentality: using open source research to develop diagnostic solutions

In 2004, UK-based research company Inscentinel, which specialises in using animals’ olfactory skills to detect certain compounds, found that insects have a far keener sense of smell than mammals, and got to work developing products that use honeybees to detect explosives.

The researchers found that in the right context, bees can be trained to detect specific odours in breath, such as the biomarkers associated with certain diseases. The process, where the bees are exposed to a certain smell and fed a sugar solution, takes just 10 minutes.

Inscentinel’s research and work with the Los Alamos laboratory in New Mexico inspired Portuguese designer Susana Soares to embark on a project that harnesses bees’ sense of smell as a means of diagnosing diseases.

She has created a glass object with two enclosures—a larger one where the bees are kept before diagnosis and to detect general health, and another smaller one where they’ll go if they detect the odour they’re trained to target.

Soares’ other projects are centred on scientific and technological design. Her objects are intended to educate and raise awareness of problems we’ll face in the future.

“The projects are looking at the future impact of scientific research,” she says.

“The first goal of the bees project is to work on that specific research and to raise awareness of it— that you can use insects and their sophisticated sense of smell to diagnose diseases.”

Further work has found that bees can be trained to target chemical compounds of tuberculosis, diabetes and lung, skin and pancreatic cancers.

Soares works with research groups that are usually based in universities to create her designs.

The glass chambers were developed at Portuguese glass makers Crisform and Vilabo. “The aesthetic and functional choices were equally important,” Soares said of the look of her objects.

Some charities have already expressed their interest in the bees project as a cost-effective tool for detecting illness early in the populations of developing countries.

Open source

Soares has some IP protecting her designs, including the glass object, though as a designer whose goal is raising awareness and creating solutions to real-life problems, she is open to share her work with other communities who can develop on her ideas, in a process she calls “open source”.

Just as she built on Inscentinel’s work with sniffer bees, other labs may study her designs in their work.

“You share your research and findings related to a certain problem. The chances are somebody else already came across that problem and had a specific solution to it. You could either use their solution or analyse and work on it.

“Your project is not closed, you can share it with the world—I tend to believe that works a lot better.” She suggests that working with patents could hinder the development process, given the expense of applying for them and maintaining them. “Having a worldwide patent is incredibly expensive. If you’re at the research stage, you’re not going to have a worldwide patent in a specific detail of a product or solution,” she says.

“Open source works better even at a company level, but it’s still a very new approach. Every group or team develops a specific project in a specific way, so they come across different solutions for the same problems.”

It also delivers results more quickly, she says: “It’s not necessarily a competition, it just means you’ll probably get there faster.”

Open source is far better suited to product development at a research or university level, she adds.

“You share your research and findings related to a certain problem. The chances are somebody else already came across that problem and had a specific solution to it.”

Soares’ most recent project, Insects au gratin, has some parts that she says needs to be patented, although for the meantime she is open to sharing the work she has done. “We have IP for certain projects but don’t necessarily have patents for specific components of the project. It means that other people can work with our ideas without the fear of infringing.

“If they came across the same problems, they could share their experience, and you also share your outcome or input towards a specific detail. You develop other people’s works,” she says.

Most of the licensing agreements she has are with the universities or institutions she and her team work with, she explains.

As her work is so novel, protecting it with IP has been fairly simple: “There are no similar products so it’s been simple to demonstrate or to have evidence that the project is being developed by me or other researchers.”

Real-life applications

While there is no one definitive method for diagnosing cancer—doctors will usually carry out a few different tests—and trying to implement the bee chamber for use in a clinical environment was “incredibly difficult”, Soares is optimistic her bee chamber will be welcomed in countries lacking the resources for diagnostic tests.

“We feel that the project would be more suited for implementation in developing countries that don’t have these diagnostic tools, or where people don’t have access to hospitals,” she says. “It would be a cost-effective way of screening for certain diseases.”

Soares shelved the bees project in 2009, a few years after work on it began, but a recent surge in interest has encouraged her to try implementing the product elsewhere—specifically, in Africa.

The bee chamber has been tested for accuracy at Rothamsted, a semi-private research institution, where Inscentinel is now based. Rothamsted researchers are also studying how bees detect certain diseases and how to derive more disease biomarkers that the bees can be trained to detect.

Soares is aware that an institution in New Zealand is developing methods to diagnose diseases based on bees’ sense of smell, although given her open approach, Soares isn’t concerned about other companies copying her products.

“I don’t see the project that way. What I want to get from the project is a reliable and cost-effective tool that can be used in developing countries.”

Soares uses honeybees in her project, but research suggests that other species of bees, insects, and other animals can be trained to detect different kinds of compounds by exhibiting this Pavlovian response. For example, Belgian company APOPO is training rats to detect both tuberculosis and land mines.

Insects au gratin

According to some estimates, the world’s population will reach 10 billion by 2065 and, if current food production methods don’t have a serious overhaul, this could result in a global food shortage. Eating insects has been touted as the answer, as they are far less costly than other forms of protein to produce, less of a strain on the environment and highly nutritious.

Soares uses the practice of eating insects— entomophagy—as food for thought in her most recent project. Again, it has insects as its focus, but employs them in a “completely different” way.

Edible insects are dried and ground into a powder that is mixed with icing butter, cream cheese or water, gelling agent and flavouring to create a paste that can be 3D printed into edible items to order.

“We need to discuss viable solutions to the world’s food problems,” Soares says, “and insects can be a complementary source of protein.

“I’m not advocating that eating insects is better than eating tofu or soya, but it’s dangerous to eat a food product over and over so that specific foods run out or put lots of pressure on production systems,” she says.

“We need variety, but it’s very political getting that variety to the supermarket. It might look as though we have a huge variety of products, but we don’t.”

Insects au gratin has been exhibited in sciencerelated museums and galleries such as the Science Gallery in Dublin and the Wellcome Collection in London. “The work gets spread usually through workshops or talks that connect to the exhibitions,” she says.

It’s a world away from the way clinical diagnostic methods are debuted, but Soares’s goal is very different from that of a medical device or pharmaceutical company. By taking an artist’s approach and showing us interesting ways scientific research can benefit people, her work has the potential to inspire more conventional solutions.

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