LIFESTYLE

Pigeons 'Do Just As Well As Humans' When Spotting Breast Cancer In Biopsy Samples

19/11/2015 11:45 GMT | Updated 19/11/2015 11:59 GMT

Pigeons have been found to "do just as well as humans" when tasked with spotting signs of breast cancer in biopsy samples and mammogram scans.

The birds were taught how to recognise microscope slides and mammogram scan images showing evidence of benign or malignant tissue, the Press Association reports.

According to the researchers, the pigeons were "especially adept" at sorting out the slide samples.

pigeon

Lead researcher Professor Richard Levenson, from the University of California at Davis, said: "With some training and selective food reinforcement, pigeons do just as well as humans in categorising digitised slides and mammograms of benign and malignant human breast tissue.

"The birds were remarkably adept at discriminating between benign and malignant breast cancer slides at all magnifications, a task that can perplex inexperienced human observers, who typically require considerable training to attain mastery.

"Pigeons' accuracy from day one of training at low magnification increased from 50% correct to nearly 85% correct at days 13 to 15."

Eight pigeons were used in the experiment. They were trained to peck a blue or yellow "report button" to indicate when they were being shown a benign or malignant image and were given food rewards when they got the answer correct.

Co-author Professor Edward Wasserman, from the University of Iowa, said: "These results go a long way toward establishing a profound link between humans and our animal kin.

"Even distant relatives - like people and pigeons - are adept at perceiving and categorising the complex visual patterns that are presented in pathology and radiology images, surely a task for which nature has not specifically prepared us."

Prof Levenson even suggested doctors should consider pigeons as a genuine investment for the future.

"This is a difficult, time-consuming, and expensive process that requires the recruitment of clinicians as subjects for these relatively mundane tasks," he said.

"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, and can assist researchers and engineers as they continue to innovate."

This isn't the first time an animal has been found to have the ability to spot signs of cancer.

Previous research found that dogs can detect prostate cancer in roughly 98% of cases simply by sniffing a man's urine.

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