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Scientists have Developed Worms Capable of Killing Cancer Cells

Scientists have Developed Worms Capable of Killing Cancer Cells

Researchers from Osaka University found that worms can be coated in hydrogel sheaths that transport valuable cargo such as anti-cancer drugs.

Researchers from Osaka University have made the big discovery that the microscopic, free-living worms known as nematodes can be coated with “sheaths” made of hydrogel, which can then be modified further to deliver functional cargo.

Nematodes are microscopic worms that are free-living and generally live in the soil or other habitats in the environment. However, under specific conditions, nematodes are able to enter the human body. An unusual fondness for cancer cells has been seen in Anisakis simplex, a worm that lives in marine environments and can enter people if they consume it.

Scientists have Developed Worms Capable of Killing Cancer Cells
Anisakis simplex naked and Anisakis simplex covered with a fluorescent dye-containing hydrogel sheath.
IMAGE: Shinji Sakai

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“Anisakis simplex has been reported to sense cancer, potentially by detecting cancer “odor,” and to attach to cancerous tissues, This led us to ask whether it could be used to deliver anti-cancer treatments directly to cancer cells within the human body”, stated by Wildan Mubarok, the first author of the study.

To test this possibility, the researchers first devised a method for coating nematodes with hydrogel sheaths by immersing them in a succession of treatments containing chemicals that bind together to form a gel-like covering all over their surface. In roughly 20 minutes, this procedure custom-fits a suit about 0.01 mm thick to the worm.

Shinji Sakai, a senior author of the research stated that “The results were very clear. The sheaths did not in any way interfere with the worms’ survival and were flexible enough to maintain the worms’ motility and natural ability to seek out attractive smells and chemical signals.”

The researchers then proceeded to pack the sheaths with functional molecules and discovered that doing so shielded the worms against the harmful effects of hydrogen peroxide and UV radiation. Furthermore, the sheaths could be filled with anti-cancer medicines that the nematodes could carry and distribute to kill cancer cells in vitro. This would be possible since their hydrogel armor protects them from harm but does not impede them.

Scientists have Developed Worms Capable of Killing Cancer Cells
IMAGE: Shinji Sakai

“Our findings suggest that nematodes could potentially be used to deliver functional cargo to a range of specific targets in the future,” said Mubarok.

This worm-based delivery method offers promise not just for delivering anti-cancer medications to tumour cells in patients, but also has potential uses in other disciplines, such as sending helpful bacteria to plant roots. This is due to the versatility of the hydrogel sheaths.

Reference: Nematode surface functionalization with hydrogel sheaths tailored in situ by Wildan Mubarok, Masaki Nakahata, Masaru Kojima , Shinji Sakai. DOI: 10.1016/j.mtbio.2022.100328

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