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Scientists have created worms that can kill cancer cells


James Bond’s famed quartermaster Q provided the secret agent with an unlimited supply of equipment and gadgets to aid him on his missions. Now, scientists from Japan have shown that they are equally adept in providing microscopic worms with a surprising variety of useful and protective components.

Researchers from Osaka University have discovered that microscopic, free-living worms known as nematodes may be coated with hydrogel-based “sheaths” that can be further customized to transport functional cargo.

Nematodes are tiny, free-living worms that normally inhabit soil or other environmental niches and, under certain circumstances, may enter the human body. Anisakis simplex, a marine-dwelling nematode that may colonize humans when consumed, has shown an odd liking for cancer cells.

Naked Anisakis simplex and Anisakis simplex coated with hydrogel sheath containing fluorescence dye. Credit: Shinji Sakai.

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

To investigate this possibility, the researchers first developed a system for applying hydrogel sheaths to nematodes by dipping them in a series of solutions containing chemicals that bind together to create a gel-like layer all over their surface. This process essentially custom-fits a suit about 0.01 mm thick to the worm in about 20 minutes.

“The results were very clear,” says Shinji Sakai, senior author of the study. “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.”

Next, the researchers loaded the sheaths with functional molecules and found that this protected the worms from ultraviolet light or hydrogen peroxide. What’s more, the sheaths could be loaded with anti-cancer agents that the nematodes, protected but unimpeded by their hydrogel armor, could transport and deliver to kill cancer cells in vitro.

“Our findings suggest that nematodes could potentially be used to deliver functional cargo to a range of specific targets in the future,” states Mubarok. Given the adaptability of the hydrogel sheaths, this worm-based delivery system holds promise not only for delivering anti-cancer drugs to tumor cells in patients, but it also has potential applications in other fields such as delivering beneficial bacteria to plant roots.

Reference: “Nematode surface functionalization with hydrogel sheaths tailored in situ” by Wildan Mubarok, Masaki Nakahata, Masaru Kojima and Shinji Sakai, 16 June 2022, Materials Today Bio.
DOI: 10.1016/j.mtbio.2022.100328

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