Breast Cancer: Scientists Successfully Employ Pigeons For Diagnostic Accuracy

Scientists have made impressive strides into diagnosing breast cancer after successfully training pigeons to identify hard-to-spot malignant human breast tissue. Researchers from the University of Iowa trained a group of birds who could tell whether the cells identified from biopsy samples were malignant or benign.

Scientists view the procedure as a phenomenal development after having concluded that birds, owing to their outstandingly keen sense of sight, can, with almost flawless accuracy, spot active tumors and contribute to the understanding of how color, brightness, and compression can drastically enhance human capacity to interpret cancers in future.

Researcher Edward Wasserman, from the University of Iowa, stated that the findings establish how significantly animals can contribute to human scientific progress.

“Even distant relatives — like people and pigeons — are adept at perceiving and categorizing the complex visual patterns that are presented in pathology and radiology images, surely a task for which nature has not specifically prepared us. Research over the past 50 years has shown that pigeons can distinguish identities and emotional expressions on human faces, letters of the alphabet, misshapen pharmaceutical capsules, and even paintings by Monet vs. Picasso.”

The study confirms that birds can be as effective as humans at spotting signs of breast cancer in biopsy samples and mammogram scans, a feat that even the most sophisticatedly-trained pathologists and radiologists are sometimes unable to accomplish. The findings may well pave the way for science to introduce more animals into the spectrum of research and development by using their fundamentally unique characteristics and sensory abilities.

Breast cancer scientists use pigeons for diagnosis
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

According to University of California Professor Levenson, Pigeons are incredibly responsive to diagnostic images and could have a role in future diagnostic procedures.

“Pigeons’ sensitivity to diagnostically salient features in medical images suggest that they can provide reliable feedback on many variables at play in the production, manipulation, and viewing of these diagnostically crucial tools.”

The experiments involved the use of positive food reinforcement for birds upon distinguishing malignant from benign tissue samples with the help of touch screen slides. The pigeons who were trained to peck the screens to respond, demonstrated a striking ability to retain original information and apply the knowledge to the images introduced on new slides respectively.

Second only to certain types of skin cancers, breast cancer is statistically the most common cancer in women regardless of race or ethnicity. In the United States alone, it remains the most common cause of death from cancer among Hispanic women followed by white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native women.

Imaging tests use x-rays, magnetic fields, sound waves, or radioactive substances to create illustrations of the inside of the body. Imaging tests may be done for a number of reasons, including to help find out whether a suspicious area might be cancerous, to learn how far the cancer may have intensified, and to help determine if treatment is effective enough. Commonly employed breast cancer screening methods include Mammograms, Ultrasound, and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) of the breast.

Biopsies are carried out when mammograms, other imaging tests, or physical examination identify a breast change (or an apparent abnormality) that may be possibly characterized as cancerous. It remains the best procedure to determine if cancer is actually present or rule out a suspected malignancy altogether.

According to another study carried out by the University of Iowa earlier this year, pigeons can learn to distinguish and categorize objects in ways extremely similar to how toddlers recognize them. The findings brought to light enough evidence to conclude that birds in general and pigeons in particular are remarkably adept at differentiating complex objects using highly efficient communication tools and strikingly impressive response mechanisms.

[Image Credit: David McNew/Getty Images]