Part 2: Spot The Difference

Fact: Pigeons can detect breast cancer.

Dogs aren’t the only ones with supernatural medical powers: new research suggests that pigeons could one day be working in hospitals saving lives.

Spotting the presence of cancer in a tissue sample is an incredibly important but difficult part of diagnosing cancer. It involves pathologists pouring over histological images looking for particular changes that are hallmarks of cancer cells, which of course is a hugely time consuming process. But new research has suggested that pigeons could be as effective as trained pathologists in spotting the development of cancer in such images.

The visual systems of pigeons surpass those of us mere humans in terms of distinguishing shades of colour. Whereas our eyes determine colour through detecting the various intensity of the three primary colours (red, green and blue – think of an RGB colour chart on a computer if that helps), pigeons use extra light sensors and filters to allow them to detect five different colour bands. This makes their vision exceptionally sensitive to different shades of colour.

It is this extraordinary vision that comes in handy when a pigeon decides to take up a career in the lab, as once trained they are able to tell the difference between the shading patterns of normal and cancerous breast tissue. Most impressive is the fact that they were able to generalise this skill: when presented with a new image they had not seen before, they could accurately classify it as either malignant or normal by applying what they had learnt in training. This opens up the possibility that pigeons could become a useful diagnostic tool in the fight against cancer.

So the flying rodent, the pest of the inner city, could one day end up giving you medical advice. Maybe don’t let your kids kick them anymore. Credit to Theo Wethered for bringing this one to my attention (and should you so desire, you can read the paper here).

‘Another one of Mr Shaunak’s Little Bites Of Science’
Image under creative commons license.

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