Back in November 2021, we brought you news from scientists who are developing a cancer screening test using genetically modified roundworms to detect early signs of pancreatic cancer from just a drop of urine.
Now, researchers at Osaka University have discovered that a specific type of microscopic worm known as a nematode can kill cancer cells, according to a press release from the institution published last month. To achieve this, the worms must be coated in hydrogel-based “envelopes” that can be further engineered to carry functional cargo (cancer-fighting substances).
A sea worm that searches for cancer cells
One of these types of nematodes is the Anisakis simplex, a microscopic sea creature that has a special love for cancer cells.
“Anisakis simplex It has been reported to sense cancer, possibly by detecting the smell of cancer, and attaching itself to cancerous tissue,” Wildan Mubarok, first author of the study, said in the statement. “This led us to wonder if it could be used to deliver anti-cancer treatments directly to cancer cells in the human body.”
The researchers decided to investigate a system for attaching hydrogel shells to nematodes to create a gel-like coating all over their bodies, protecting them from the cancer-killing substances they would be primed for. The end result was nematodes equipped with a suit about 0.01mm thick. Even cooler, the whole process only took 20 minutes.
“The results were very clear,” says Shinji Sakai, senior author of the study. “The shells did not affect the survival of the worms in any way and were flexible enough to maintain motility and the worms’ natural ability to perceive attractive odors and chemical signals.”
Anti-cancer agents delivered directly to cancer cells
Next, the researchers experimented with applying anti-cancer agents to the nematodes. Normally this can be harmful to the parasitic worms, but in this case the creatures were protected by their hydrogel armor. The scientists found that the newly engineered worm could then transport and deliver the anti-cancer drugs to kill cancer cells in vitro.
“Our results suggest that nematodes could potentially be used to deliver functional cargo to a number of specific targets in the future,” says Mubarok. “Given the adaptability of the hydrogel shells, this worm-based delivery system not only holds promise for delivering anticancer drugs to tumor cells in patients, but also has potential applications in other areas, e.g. B. in delivering beneficial bacteria to plant roots.”
The research is still in its early stages and may encounter several issues during development. There is the fact that many people do not want parasitic worms in their system. There is also the question of how to control the creatures after they have been administered to the human body. However, when it comes to cancer treatments, it offers hope for a new and effective solution.
The study was published in the journal science direct.
Engineering the surfaces of biological organisms allows the introduction of new functions and enhances their native functions. However, surface engineering studies have been limited to unicellular organisms. Here, nematode surfaces are worked through on site horseradish peroxidase (HRP)-mediated hydrogelation anchored to nematode cuticles. Using this method, hydrogel shells about 10 μm thick are prepared from a variety of polysaccharides, proteins, and synthetic polymers. Caenorhabditis elegans and Anisakis simplex coated with a hydrogel shell showed negligible decreases in viability, chemotaxis and locomotion. Hydrogel shells containing UV absorbing groups and catalase acted as shields to protect the nematodes from UV and hydrogen peroxide, respectively. The results also showed that glucose oxidase-containing hydrogel shells have the potential to be used as living drug delivery systems for cancer therapy. The nematode functionalization method developed in this study has the potential to impact a variety of fields from agriculture to medicine.