Rats all folks! Meet Bart’s rodent mine-detection agency

29 Jun 2017

Bart Weetjens, founder of APOPO. Image: Yasuyoshi Chiba

From Goldie the Syrian hamster, to HeroRATs saving lives, Bart Weetjens’ eclectic career has saved many people’s lives.

At what stage did you turn on rodents? Was it when you spotted mice in that dodgy apartment after you first moved out? Did a friend’s pet hamster bite you on the finger?

At some stage, many of us fell out of love with rodents, which is quite a fall from grace from when we, as babies, cheered on Jerry while Tom’s haphazard hunting approach consistently fell short.

But maybe it’s enthusiasm, rather than disdain, that we should feel when encountering a mouse, rat, hamster or chinchilla.

Do the Bart man

That’s certainly the viewpoint of Bart Weetjens, founder of APOPO, a non-profit organisation training rats to detect landmines and even, somewhat extraordinarily, diagnose tuberculosis (TB).

A Belgian operation now gone global, APOPO – reliant on public donations – has what it calls HeroRATs working in Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia. Why? One man’s interest in Africa.

Weetjens, a Zen Buddhist priest, had visited friends in Africa a number of times in the 1990s, encountering the range of hardships experienced by subsistence farmers wherever he went. Landmines, in particular, were devastating communities.

Around the same time, Diana, Princess of Wales, was campaigning for new, innovative ways to detect what is widely believed to be millions of hidden landmines worldwide.

“I was baffled by the dependency of those affected by the landmine problem. Refugee camps, people living there for generations, completely dependent on foreign aid,” Weetjens told Siliconrepublic.com.

HeroRATS at work. Image: APOPO

HeroRATs in the field. Image: APOPO

“Most were subsistence farmers. They could live a sustainable life but landmines stopped them being able to do just that.

“I studied design, so I looked at it from the customers’ point of view – in this case, farmers with limited resources. What solution could we devise? What was available to them?”

Sniffing out a solution

Weetjens read a research paper on how certain rodents could use their smell to detect explosives and, already armed with plenty of knowledge about rats, he got thinking.

Behaviour training with dogs has proved a very effective way of detecting mines, but Weetjens, who will speak at this year’s Inspirefest, felt indigenous rats would be better.

Pretty soon, giant African pouched rats on leads and harnesses were wandering the minefields and sniffing out danger. What’s better, the training is sustainable and does not involve any electric stimulae, merely the reward of food.

“What we need to do is give back safe land to populations at the lowest cost, the lowest burden possible,” said Weetjens.

Rats are cheap, easy to transport, quick to train and, ultimately, a respite from the fear of mines. These explosives do more damage than any stats can describe as, after just one person is injured or killed, an entire village of farmers has to flee for fear of further incidents.

“Entire communities in refugee camps,” lamented Weetjens. Entire communities of rats getting them back home.

HeroRATS at work. Image: APOPO

HeroRATs at work. Image: APOPO

TB discovery

A bigger issue globally, in terms of direct casualties, is TB. For APOPO, it’s best to understand the name.

“In my native language, Dutch, the name for TB traditionally is tering, which etymologically refers to the smell of tar,” explained Weetjens.

“I can remember Grandfather talking about a neighbour with TB, saying ‘this guy smells of tar’. I thought about this.

“I was connecting these dots: if TB is so big in Africa, and so many people die and we lose so much staff to it, and we have the technology to detect landmines by smell, why can’t these rats detect a disease that was ‘smelly’?”

Weetjens ran some tests and, pretty soon, he and his wife realised they were on to something.

Incredible results from Weetjens’ own trials of rats smelling out TB-infected blood samples saw them eventually brought on board with actual medical tests.

Weetjens and his team were finding 40pc extra cases of TB than standard microscopy testing and, once they started working closer with hospitals, those numbers were maintained.

HeroRATS trying to find the TB-infected sample. Image: APOPO

HeroRATs trying to find the TB-infected sample. Image: APOPO

“We implemented the process more and more, and we started researching in several cities. There was always a 40pc increase. Even if we couldn’t standardise the technology, we could indicate a very cost-efficient health intervention.”

Rats, the early diagnosis kings of the earth.

When someone has pulmonary complaints, they go to hospital and a sample is investigated by microscope. Weetjens and his APOPO team collect those samples the same day, and run them through their rat class overnight.

The speed is something worth noting. While microscopy can deal with dozens of tests a day, rats can work into the tens of thousands.

“We collect all these samples and provide the results back to the hospitals the very next day,” said Weetjens.

“The patient gets their hospital results as well as their rat results. If the rats show a positive where the microscopy showed negative, they get further tests.”

Low impact, low cost … for a city-wide medical diagnostic kit, these elements are ideal.

HeroRATS at work. Image: APOPO

Man’s best friend. Image: APOPO

All that glitters is Goldie

And it all – the certifications, the successes, the funding – began with Goldie. A small, Syrian hamster, Goldie was Weetjens’ pet when he was a nine-year-old Antwerpian.

“I was very fond of it, I took it everywhere with me,” he said, recalling the day a schoolteacher spotted Goldie and wrecked Weetjens’ routine.

“Yes, I had to leave it at home, so I asked my mom if I could get a playmate for Goldie. I was allowed to!”

Problems emerged when Goldie and his new mate, well, mated, but this soon turned to opportunity. Weetjens went to a local pet shop to give away the young and was shocked to receive payment.

Turning into an entrepreneur overnight, he began breeding rodents. “By 14, I had hamsters, rats, mice, gerbils … I bred them. Earning an income was something new to me.”

By then, though, real life was getting in the way and Weetjens decided to pursue his other love: military. Off to military school he went before quickly realising it was not for him. He became a pacifist within one year, dropped out and went on to study design thinking, later finding his zen.

Rodents became a distant memory.

That was until he got wind of the problems facing African farmers. That was until he heard of rodents’ talent for sniffing out danger. That was until Diana, Princess of Wales, called out for mine-detection solutions.

That was when it all clicked.

Bart Weetjens will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Book now to join us from 6 to 8 July in Dublin.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic