Israel Trains Mice to Sniff Out Drugs
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International drug warriors could soon be recruiting legions of tiny, furry counter-narcotic agents: mice. The creatures often get a bum rap, but possess a powerful sense of smell that may soon be used to detect drugs, explosives and other hazardous items at airports, docks and border-crossings. Eran Lumbroso, founder and chief technology officer of Israeli firm BioExplorers, devised this strategy in 2000 after a string of suicide bombings on Israeli buses. “I was in the army at the time, and the idea emerged to use small animals instead of dogs in detecting suicide bombers,” he says. After experimenting with various animals, Lumbroso chose mice because they're less intrusive and intimidating than dogs, and have a stronger sense of smell; they're also easy to train and can be deployed in larger numbers. Lumbroso's screening system involves a traveler passing through a booth containing three microwave-like mouse chambers. A burst of air passes over the traveler and into one of the chambers; if the furry agents pick up a problem scent, they set off an alert by scurrying into a separate compartment. During a 2010 test of the system outside a Tel Aviv mall, 1,200 people passed through the booth: the critters detected suspicious material on all 20 test subjects—with only one false alarm. Lumbroso believes the system could eventually be used to scout out more than just smugglers: ”People in the early stages of breast and lung cancer exhale certain particles,” he said. “The mice could be trained to sniff them out.”