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'HeroRats' detect landmines, tuberculosis

by Jeanne Baron

Jan. 4, 2011 | WMU News

Photo of Western Michigan University's Dr Alan Poling.
Dr. Alan Poling
KALAMAZOO--Rodents rarely come to mind when people think of superheroes, but a Western Michigan University psychologist is hoping that will change.

Dr. Alan D. Poling, WMU professor of psychology, is part of a team of specialists working with the non-governmental organization APOPO, which has had considerable success using large African pouched rats to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis bacteria.

Poling says the rodents, dubbed HeroRats, have an acute sense of smell and do well at detecting explosive devices and the live TB bacterium. They're also cheaper to train and maintain than dogs, making them a valuable alternative for landmine detection in developing countries.

"Product developers, not scientists, founded APOPO. They asked me to get involved because of my expertise in animal learning," Poling says. "On the one hand, I thought their work was innovative and interesting. On the other hand, I thought it was kind of counterintuitive--rats don't come immediately to mind when one thinks of diagnosing diseases."

APOPO, which is headquartered in Tanzania, is an acronym for what in Dutch means Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development. The NGO was founded by Belgian Bart Weetjens in the mid-1990s in response to the global landmine problem.

The organization has been garnering national and international attention, with stories about its work being featured recently by MSNBC and CNN as well as appearing over the past two years in the United Nations publication Freedom from Fear and numerous scholarly journals.

In addition, Poling was interviewed earlier this month by media outlets such as "CBS News" and "Voice of America." He also was the lead author of a study published in the December issue of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and will be featured in an upcoming edition of the American Psychological Association publication, APA Monitor.

A psychopharmacologist and behavior analyst, Poling joined APOPO and the HeroRat team in August 2009 to increase its research capacity, improve the scientific rigor of that research and further streamline rat-training processes. Among the specific activities he's involved in are developing research protocols, analyzing data and writing grants and articles.

Poling has been going to Tanzania periodically since joining the team, and will be traveling there early this year to work on several projects with two doctoral students from WMU.

"A unique aspect of APOPO is that it's dedicated to coming up with local solutions to local problems. This is a real team effort, and the rats are already doing a good job of detecting landmines," he says. "The real challenges come from working in the developing world. Tanzania is one of the poorest countries on earth, and it's a tough place to work. For me, this has certainly been a life-changing experience and a great opportunity to do humanitarian work."

Landmines kill and maim thousands of people around the world every year, in addition to hindering agriculture, reconstruction, repatriation of refugees, and other aspects of social and economic development.

Poling says Rats can clear landmines for about $1.25 per square meter (roughly a square yard), which is well below the $2-to-$2.50-rate typical of most clearance projects. Their highly sensitive and accurate sense of smell can identify the presence of both metal and plastic-cased landmines, while their size and weight make it highly unlikely they would set off a pressure-activated mine. In fact, the trained animals are far too precious to be treated with anything but great care and attention.

Although a wild species, the African giant pouched rats have proved to be a perfect species to breed as HeroRats. A widespread indigenous animal, they're comparatively calm, docile and easy to tame. They're also adapted to the local environment and able to live up to eight years in captivity, optimizing the return on training investment.

"Wild rats are really nasty," Poling admits, adding that APOPO has procedures to socialize and gentle them. "Trainers play with the rats, take them for rides and get them used to different sounds, places and people," he explains. It takes about 175 days to socialize and train them to find landmines, less time for TB detection."

With landmine detection going well, Poling says the real potential of HeroRats right now is in screening for tuberculosis. The early signs are promising, and trained rats already have increased TB detection rates in five Tanzanian hospitals by more than 44 percent.

"Two billion people around the world are exposed to TB--it's just a scourge in the developing world," Poling says. "There's no cheap and accurate method to detect it, so if we can improve screening, it will be hugely beneficial to humanity."

Health officials report that TB kills more youth and adults than any other single infectious disease in the world today, with Africa having the highest number of lethal cases per capita. Poling says a lot of people are exposed to TB, and one in 10 becomes clinically ill.

But skin or blood tests don't identify people who have the active TB bacteria in them, just people who have been exposed to it. To detect the active bacteria, sputum samples typically are prepared and examined under a microscope or are cultured to see if any bacteria will grow.

"Microscopy misses 60 to 70 percent of active infections and is slow--a technician can only do 30 to 40 smears per day. Cultures allow for accurate detection, but take six weeks to grow," he says. "Rats can analyze hundreds of samples in a day, and we're reasonably sure that they're as accurate as microscopy, and probably substantially more accurate. The next step is to study how rats do compared to culturing."

Poling says that when he joins his doctoral students in Tanzania this year, he will be working on that type of comparison as well as moving ahead with other experiments and projects. He's particularly interested in investigating how detection rats can be adapted to screen for explosives in cargo shipments and whether their natural burrowing talent can be harnessed by fitting them with miniature cameras so they can search for survivors in the rubble of disaster sites.

A WMU faculty member since 1977, Poling has written or co-written 11 books, along with some 250 articles that have appeared in 40 different professional journals. He is a fellow of three divisions of the American Psychological Association and the recipient of WMU's Distinguished Faculty Scholar Award. He earned a bachelor's degree from Alderson-Broaddus College, a master's degree from West Virginia University and a doctoral degree from the University of Minnesota.

Visit apopo.org for more information about how HeroRats are saving lives across Tanzania or to donate to the HeroRATs Campaign.