A Crystal Ball for Telling the Present, Not the Future

(Susana Soares)
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Blowing into a glass bubble that holds buzzing bees sounds a little kooky. But according to Portuguese artist Susana Soares, doing so could help detect disease and monitor fertility cycles.

Soares has some scientific backing for her claims: Certain illnesses -- or, more accurately, the chemicals they release -- have distinctive odors; and with 170 smell receptors and a 99 percent accuracy rate, Soares says, honeybees could become a promising diagnostic tool. Researchers are already working with cancer-sniffing dogs, and scientists are developing electronic noses to detect viruses.

Last year, Soares began working with bees trained to detect pheromones and toxins specific to skin and lung cancer, diabetes and tuberculosis. To get the bees to act as a diagnostic tool, she designed glass instruments with two chambers -- a large one to house the bees and a smaller chamber into which the patient breathes. The bees smell the patient's breath and fly toward the smaller chamber if they detect a specific pheromone or toxin.

With this device, Soares says, diseases can be diagnosed earlier and ovulation cycles can be more sophisticatedly pinpointed.

Plus, there's no harm to the bees, which can be released after the test.

-- Kathleen Hom

© 2008 The Washington Post Company