Israeli Company Trains Mice to Detect Drugs, Bombs

Sure, they may carry disease, but mice can also help save us from suicide bombers. Not a bad trade-off.

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Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

Developer Eran Lumbroso holds mice during a drugs and explosives detection demonstration at The 2nd International Conference of Israel Homeland Security expo on November 12, 2012 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Sure, mice help us out with our science experiments, and some of them even sing. But they’re also vermin that spread diseases such as typhus, salmonella and even bubonic plague. Still, one Israel-based research company is harnessing some of the traits that make these rodents so naughty for a noble cause.

AFP reports that BioExplorers, a firm based in the town of Herzliya, on the country’s central coast, are using mice’s keen sense of smell to detect drugs, explosives and other suspect items at docks, border crossings and airports. A traveler enters a booth, where he is hit with a draft of air that is sucked into an opaque enclosure housing eight mice. Within eight seconds, rodents sniff the air for potentially hazardous materials; a cleared individual can leave the area upon seeing a green light. If the tiny agents smell any suspicious scents, however, they send off an alert by congregating in a different compartment.

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Each of the booths contain three stacked microwave-oven size mice chambers, the inhabitants of which are on duty for four hours at a time. After four hours, the airstream is directed to the next enclosure.

Eran Lumbroso, founder and chief technology officer of BioExplorers, came up with the idea for the system between 2000 and 2001, when numerous suicide bombings occurred 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,” Lumbroso told attendees at the Israel Homeland Security exhibition in Tel Aviv, where he showed his project for the first time.

After Lumbroso — who is also a biologist — left the army in 2004, he experimented with different animals, training techniques and barriers to perfect his enterprise. He eventually decided to employ mice because of their small size and sharp olfactory abilities, which can be tailored to detect money, drugs and pesticides on produce, AFP reported.

“They have a very developed sense of smell, more than that of dogs,” Lumbroso told AFP. “The mice can also be easily trained, and thanks to their small size, you can use a small group of them and have multiple sensors.” He said another advantage of using the critters is that they are less intimidating and intrusive than dogs.

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Lumbroso claims the mice perform better than trace detection machines at airports, which use swabs to detect explosive materials on clothes and hands. He even touted his system over full-body scanners that identify shapes of contraband hidden beneath clothes.

It’s not a bad deal for the mice, either. AFP reported they experience a better quality of life than those who are subjects in laboratories. The enclosures contain food and water, restocked every two weeks when the chambers are cleaned and serviced. The mice work for 18 months, following a two-month training period.

BioExplorers tested the system in December 2010 outside a mall in Tel Aviv. Out of more than 1,200 people that passed through the booth, the mice discovered suspicious material on all of the 20 test subjects, with just one false alarm. The company said it will pilot a prototype in 2013.

Lumbroso thinks his mice can do even more.”People in the early stages of breast and lung cancer exhale certain particles,” Lumbroso told the AFP, predicting a future for his devices in science and health as well as security. “The mice could be trained to sniff them out.”

Although innovative, BioExplorers’ system isn’t man’s first venture outside the canine world for help in detecting suspect material. In 2006, USA Today reported that scientists were training honey bees, which pick up scent with their antennae, to detect explosives and land mines.

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