Thanks to its “extraordinary sense of smell”, the Caenorhabditis elegans worm can diagnose lung cancer early, accurately and non-invasively. This is what a team of specialists from Myongji University (South Korea) believes.
This species of nematode has collaborated with science since the 1970s, as a model for various genetic studies. Belonging to the Rhabditidae family, it is easy to grow in a laboratory and is about 1 mm (0.04 inches) long.
C. elegans is capable of locating cancer cells using scent as a guide, and this potential is what Shin Sik Choi and Nari Jang intend to exploit. In accordance with EurekAlertdogs also have this quality, but it is not easy to handle them, while x-ray tests and biopsies do not usually detect tumors in early stages.
“Lung cancer cells produce a different set of odor molecules than normal cells. It is well known that this nematode lives in the soil and is attracted or repelled by certain odors, so we came up with the idea that the roundworm could be used to detect lung cancer,” Choi said.
The same portal reported that C. elegans has already been tested with samples from cancer patients. On Petri dishes, the worm preferentially crawls into the urine of people with cancer.
In their experiment, the Korean experts designed a small rectangular chip made of synthetic material, with a central channel and two reservoirs at each end, where they deposited cultures of cells with and without cancer. Within an hour, there were more worms crawling towards the first ones.
EurekAlert stated that “the researchers estimated that the device was about 70% efficient in detecting cancer cells in diluted cell culture media. They hope to increase both the precision and sensitivity of the method by using worms that have been previously exposed to cancer cell media and thus have a ‘memory’ of cancer-specific odor molecules.”
The next step will be exposing C. elegans to samples of people’s urine, saliva, or even breath vapor, as well as experimenting with other forms of cancer.