Study Finds That Worms Can Detect Lung Cancer Cells

Worms Can Detect Lung Cancer Cells

Photo: Nari Jang

Myongji University (South Korea) scientists Nari Jang and Shin Sik Choi have discovered that roundworms can detect cancer as they are attracted to the “floral scent” of the cancer cells.

Doctors may be able to detect cancer early, noninvasively, and cheaply using a “worm on a chip” device that the researchers assembled.

Doctors currently use imaging tests and biopsies to diagnose lung cancer. However, these methods typically cannot detect cancerous tumors at their early stages when the patient has a better chance of surviving.

Previously, dogs were found to be capable of detecting cancer through human breath, sweat, urine, and stools, but there is a short supply of trained dogs. They are also not the best companions in a laboratory.

Jang and Choi came up with using C. elegans worms or nematodes, which measure around 1mm and have been studied to have a heightened sense of smell.

Previous research has shown that the worms are attracted to urine from people with different kinds of cancer.

‘Floral scent’

Jang and Choi designed a chip with a well at each end connected by channels to a central chamber placed in a Petri dish. 

A liquid containing lung cancer cells was dropped at one end, while the other contained normal cells. The worms were then placed in the central chamber.

The researchers recorded that more worms had congregated toward the lung cancer cells an hour later.

It was estimated through several tests that the effectiveness of the device in detecting cancer cells was 70 percent.

The lung cancer cells gave off a “floral scent” due to the volatile organic compound called 2-ethyl-1-hexanol, which is why the worms gravitated towards it.

“We guess that the odors are similar to the scents from their favorite foods,” Jang said.

Jang and Choi are hopeful that they will be able to make the test more accurate by training the worms to react to the floral scent.

Next is to test the worms on urine, saliva, and human breath after perfecting the “worm on a chip” device.

These research findings were presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society held in San Diego, California on Sunday.

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