A Japanese company uses tiny worms to detect cancer

A Japanese biotech company has developed a test that uses tiny worms to detect early signs of pancreatic cancer in urine.

Scientists have long known that the bodily fluids of cancer patients smell differently from those of healthy people, and dogs are trained to detect the disease in samples of breath or urine.

But the Hirotsu Bio Science company has genetically modified a type of worm called C. elegans – about a millimeter long and with a keen sense of smell – to react to the urine of people with pancreatic cancer, known for the difficulty of detecting it early.

“This is a huge technological breakthrough,” CEO Takaaki Hirotsu, a former academic who studied these tiny worms known as nematodes, told AFP.

The Tokyo-based company has already used these worms in some tests, although it did not specify which type.

The new test is not intended to diagnose pancreatic cancer, but could help reinforce routine tests, as urine samples can be collected at home without having to go to the hospitalHirotsu said at a news conference on Tuesday.

And if the worms set off the alarm, the patient would be referred to a doctor for further testing, he said.

His hope is that he can help increase cancer detection rates in Japan, which like many countries has seen them decline during the pandemic because people avoided going to the doctor.

“Promising” use of worms

Even before the pandemic, Japanese patients underwent cancer screening less frequently than many of their counterparts in developed countries, according to OECD data.

Hirotsu and Osaka University explained the skills of the C. elegans to detect cancer in a joint study published earlier this year in the journal “Oncotarget”, whose articles are peer-reviewed.

In other tests carried out by the company, the worms correctly identified all 22 urine samples from pancreatic cancer patients, including people in the early stages of the disease.

Tim Edwards, a professor of psychology at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, who has studied the ability of dogs to detect lung cancer, said the use of the worms seemed “promising.”

Edwards, who is not related to the Japanese company, noted that, unlike dogs, the worms did not need training to sniff out cancer in patients.

Daniel Kolarich, associate professor at the Australian Center for Glycomics in Cancer, noted that the “unconventional” nature of the method could be “one of the reasons it has not received more attention.”

“Personally, I think we should pursue any sensible strategy to develop and identify tests that help us identify cancer as soon as possible,” he told AFP.