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Scientists From Japan Genetically Engineered Parasitic Worms To Detect And Kill Cancer Cells

The treatment methods and options for cancer are advancing day by day. What earlier appeared unattainable in the field of cancer research has now become reality due to the introduction of many technical advancements that have helped us identify, visualise, diagnose and treat cancer better. Exploring these technologies further can help reduce the complications and mortalities related to this chronic disease.

Among many innovations against cancer, one is Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, or CRISPR. It is a revolutionary gene-editing technology that helps insert, delete or edit the genetic code of living cells to make them adapt to doing things in certain ways, like treating genetic or chronic diseases. [1]

Using the same technology, researchers from Osaka University (Japan) have recently discovered a genetically engineered microscopic worm called nematodes that can help detect and kill cancerous cells.

Take a look at the details.

About Genetically-Engineered Worms

The researchers have modified the genetic codes of Anisakis simplex, a marine-living nematode. They are free-living, microscopic worms that usually live in the soil or other environmental niches but can occasionally enter the human body.

When entered, the simplex parasitic worms are known to work in a unique way in the human body. Due to their fondness for cancer cells, the parasites are known to sense these disease cells by their odour and get attached to the cancer tissues.

This distinct ability of the worms to make their way to cancer cells has given researchers the idea of using them to deliver cancer-killing substances directly to those cells and thus, treat cancer.

As per the details in the press release by the institution, the engineered nematodes can be coated with hydrogel-based "sheaths" to help them carry cancer skilling substances. [2]

About Hydrogel Sheaths

According to the journal Frontiers, hydrogel sheaths are biological fluids made with different types of polymers like protein and synthetic polymers. In biology or biomedical, they are mainly used to fabricate or coat living cells by soaking them in the sheath solution to protect them or to maintain their structure. [3]

The researchers created a mechanism for coating the surfaces of nematodes with hydrogel sheaths to test their theory. The coating procedure took 20 minutes to design a 0.01 mm-thick suit for the worm.

According to the study's senior author, Shinji Sakai, the sheaths were adaptable to preserve the worms' natural capacity to move around in search of cancer odours, without posing any threat to their survival.

Further modifications in the sheaths also help protect the worms against hydrogen peroxide and UV rays. The nematodes were then ready to successfully act as a cargo for anti-cancer agents to desired cells (cancerous cells) and kill them or prevent their spread.

Previous Studies

It's not the first time that scientists have genetically engineered worms for use in cancer treatment. Last year in 2021, a Japan-based biotech startup, Hirotsu Bio Science Inc., used genetically modified roundworms to create a cancer screening test that can identify early signs of pancreatic cancer with just a drop of urine.

In the research, Caenorhabditis elegans, a soil-dwelling nematode that has a great sense of smell, even more than dogs, was used to sniff out cancer in humans. The worms were used to identify the smell of cancer in the urine. [4]

To Conclude

This new research on cancer treatment could be a game-changer for cancer patients and may help reduce deaths due to the condition. The technology of coating living cells with hydrogen sheaths can also be used in drug delivery research, especially in cancer therapy.

Story first published: Monday, July 11, 2022, 15:34 [IST]
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