Genetically Modified Tiny Worms Can Detect Pancreatic Cancer at an Early Stage

With just one drop of urine.
Derya Ozdemir

A Japanese biotech startup called Hirotsu Bio Science Inc. has developed a cancer screening test using genetically engineered roundworms to detect early signs of pancreatic cancer from just a drop of urine.

The technological advancement is a momentous leap for cancer research since pancreatic cancer is generally discovered after it has spread and when treatment options are limited. This means that for the vast majority of patients, a diagnosis is a death sentence.

However, with the highly accurate novel test, things may be changing in the detection of pancreatic cancer and possibly other types of cancer.

Sniffing out cancer

Takaaki Hirotsu, CEO of the firm, developed the highly precise cancer detection method utilizing the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans in 2015, according to The Japan Times; however, until the most recent finding, they were unable to identify specific forms of cancer.

According to the recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Oncotarget, the company examined the nematode's olfactory receptors and discovered a gene that reacts only to the urine of pancreatic cancer patients. In fact, when this gene is disabled, the roundworms are attracted to the urine of people with lung, stomach, and other cancers, but not to the urine of people with pancreatic cancer. The worms were able to successfully recognize all 22 urine samples from pancreatic cancer patients, including those in the early stages of the disease, in independent tests undertaken by the firm.

The company claims that this method is 100 percent accurate in detecting pancreatic cancer and 91.3 percent for other types, per The Japanese Times; however, there needs to be more studies before this can be said for sure. It should be also be noted that these tests are not intended to diagnose pancreatic cancer, but rather to boost routine screening, since urine samples are relatively easy and don't require a hospital visit.

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The method needs to be further tested, but the researchers believe early detection of pancreatic cancer using C. elegans "can certainly be expected in the near future," per Medscape

This is great news since, pancreatic cancer, although being the 14th most common cancer in the world, is one of the deadliest, killing more than 430,000 individuals each year, according to Nature. The disease is predicted to become the second leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States by 2030, and in the European Union, disease-related mortality is expected to rise by about 50% by 2025, compared to 2010 levels. However, with early detection, we may be able to push the boundaries of cancer research, and a diagnosis may no longer be synonymous with death.

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