World’s first screening test for pancreatic cancer sees worms sniff out tumors

Researchers have spent 28 years studying this species.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Nematodes in a petri dish.jpg
Nematodes in a petri dish.

Sinyhu/iStock 

The world's first early screening test for pancreatic cancer using worms has been developed and deployed by a Japanese biotech firm called Hirotsu Bio Science, according to a report by Reuters published on Friday.

Called N-NOSE plus Pancreas test (because it uses the noses of tiny worms), the product is being marketed directly to consumers in Japan and aims to reach target audiences in the United States by 2023.

The method works by using a species of nematodes known scientifically as C. elegans. These worms can smell cancer and head toward it.

As such people send in their urine samples and the lab technicians place them in a petri dish with the worms. If there are signs of cancer, the tiny worms sniff it out.

Company founder and chief executive Takaaki Hirotsu has been researching these beings for 28 years.

"What's very important with early detection of cancer and these kinds of diseases is being able to sense very trace amounts," Hirotsu told Reuters. "And when it comes to that, I think that machines don't stand a chance against the capabilities that living organisms have."

World’s first screening test for pancreatic cancer sees worms sniff out tumors
Nematodes can sniff out cancer.

The first N-NOSE consumer test was launched back in January 2020 and it is estimated that about 300,000 people have taken it, with about 5 percent to 6 percent receiving high-risk readings.

Changing the genetic code

In the most advanced version, the company changed the genetic code of the nematodes so that they would swim away from pancreatic cancer samples. Now, the company is working on rolling out targeted tests for liver cancer, as well as cervical and breast cancers.

At the moment, the pancreas test kit is quite expensive, costing up to 70,000 yen ($505). But Hirotsu says the price is part of the process of building a brand and may be diminished in time.

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He has also launched TV ads using caricatures of the worms and the pancreas. But the diagnostic test is not without its deterrents: several doctors have criticized the company's direct approach to consumers and put to doubt the medical validity of the test.

Doubting the validity of the test

Masahiro Kami, the head of the Medical Governance Research Institute think tank in Tokyo, told Reuters that there is a high chance of false positives making the results of the worm tests "not usable."

The company's reply to these comments is that N-NOSE is merely intended as an early screening tool that can direct patients to further testing sooner, increasing their chances of catching the disease early and thus multiplying their survival rates.

Finally, Hirotsu explains he doesn't have any particular fondness for the worms that make up such an important component of his tests.

"I feel like I have to give the answer that I love nematodes and I find them cute, but that's not the case at all," he told Reuters. Really, I just think of them as research materials and nothing more."

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