Parasitic worms are enough to make most people squirm, but new research has discovered that if you send them towards cancer cells, they have an unexpected appetite, "sniffing" out and attaching to them. Scientists believe that by giving them a little outfit loaded with anti-cancer drugs, the bloodhound-like ability of nematodes to hunt down cancer cells could be a fascinating – and somewhat disgusting – therapy against difficult tumors.
The research was published in the journal Materials Today Bio.
The worm in question is a human-infecting marine nematode called Anisakis simplex, which colonizes the intestines after infection through uncooked seafood. It can be removed directly from the gut but, if left untreated, the infection can become chronic.
“A. simplex has been reported to sense cancer, potentially by detecting a cancer 'odor,' and to attach to cancerous tissues,” says Wildan Mubarok, first author on the study, in a statement.
“This led us to ask whether it could be used to deliver anti-cancer treatments directly to cancer cells within the human body.”
These worms have shown a peculiar tendency to seek out cancer cells, but the issue remains that the body will vehemently attack them as a foreign pathogen should they try to move through the body – because, well, they are a foreign pathogen. So, to improve the survivability of the nematodes, scientists from Osaka University attempted to give it a new suit of armor.
Using a hydrogel, the researchers coated the nematodes in "sheaths" designed to protect them while not interrupting their homing ability or movement. Once coated, the nematodes were able to still move around and seek the cancer cells via chemotaxis, unimpeded by the sheath.
Next, the scientists attached molecules that would protect the worms from UV light and harsh chemicals. The results showed this acted as a shield, protecting them while also being able to attach drugs to the outside. Together, this suggested the nematodes could use the sheaths to carry anti-cancer drugs to tumors.
“Our findings suggest that nematodes could potentially be used to deliver functional cargo to a range of specific targets in the future,” said Mubarok.
While promising, anti-cancer drugs were never actually attached and the proof-of-concept requires further research. However, the remarkable ability of nematodes to hunt cancer cells could be an unlikely ally in the fight against various types of tumor, should the worms be found to be safe when used as a delivery vehicle.