A Japanese biotechnology startup said Tuesday that it has successfully identified patients with pancreatic cancer using genetically modified roundworms.
Tokyo-based Hirotsu Bio Science Inc. hopes to commercialize a simple test with the technology using a drop of urine for pancreatic cancer — which is difficult to spot at an early stage — within the next year.
Takaaki Hirotsu, CEO of the firm, developed the highly precise cancer detection method utilizing the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans in 2015, which has a strong sense of smell.
“This is a major technological advancement,” said Hirotsu, a former academic who studied the tiny worms, known as nematodes, at Kyushu University.
Until this most recent finding, the biotech firm had been unable to identify specific types of cancer, but the company analyzed the olfactory receptors of the nematode and found a gene that reacts only to the urine of pancreatic cancer patients. When the gene is disabled, the roundworms are attracted to the urine of people with lung, stomach and other cancer, but not to the urine of pancreatic cancer patients.
The company says that their detection method has been 100 % accurate in detecting pancreatic cancer and 91.3 % for other types of cancer. However, the firms tests are not meant to diagnose pancreatic cancer, but to help boost routine screening as urine samples can be collected at home without the need for a hospital visit.
“This is a game-changer… People need to change the way they think about cancer screening,” said Eric di Luccio, head of the firm’s research center.
Hirotsu and Osaka University detailed the nematode’s cancer-detecting skills in a joint study published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed journal “Oncotarget.”
In separate tests conducted by the firm, the worms correctly identified all 22 urine samples from pancreatic cancer patients, including people with early stages of the disease.
Tim Edwards, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Waikato in New Zealand, who has studied dogs’ ability to detect lung cancer, said using the worms appeared “promising.”
Edwards, who is not affiliated with Hirotsu Bio Science, noted that — unlike dogs — the worms needed no training to sniff out cancer in patients.
“I’ve been aiming to identify cancer types since my announcement in 2015,” said Horitsu. “I want to continue working on other cancer types that are difficult to find at an early stage and for which testing is in high demand.
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