‘Scent of a cancer’

Hitachi and Hirotsu Bio Science round up roundworms to sniff out cancer

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TOKYO—Targeted toward the early detection of cancer and increased survival rates, Hitachi Ltd. and Hirotsu Bio Science Inc. (HirotsuBio) have entered into a joint agreement to research cancer screening using nematodes—microscopic roundworms found in soil—to sniff out cancerous tumors. Researchers found that roundworms follow the scent by migrating towards the urine of cancer patients and, in turn, move away from the urine of healthy people.
The latest clinical results in roundworms detecting patients with cancer is 93.8 percent, says HirotsuBio President and CEO Dr. Takaaki Hirotsu. Other studies have recorded even better stats.
“We at Hirotsu Bio Science are working towards the practical use of the world’s first ever biological diagnosis, a cancer test known as N-NOSE that uses roundworms and urine samples and is therefore noninvasive and simple, combining together numerous benefits including high sensitivity, low costs and early detection,” HirotsuBio states on the company website.
The two Japanese companies plan to conduct collaborative research to realize the practical application of HirotsuBio’s N-NOSE cancer screening method using roundworms with new technology developed by Hitachi to automate the analysis of cancer tests and allow for the kind of large-scale testing required for future clinical assessment.
Hirotsu has been a pioneer and champion of the worm angle, researching the olfactory sense of Caenorhabditis elegans (roundworms) since his doctoral program at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, with his first paper published in the journal Nature in March 2000. Fifteen years later, he and colleagues published research on the hypothesis that roundworms can detect the smell of cancer cells. (PLOS ONE, March 2015).
“Biological diagnostics deliver a high level of sensitivity by leveraging the astounding power of biology, surpassing the sensitivity of manmade devices, while enabling costs to be kept low by selecting organisms that cost nothing for upkeep,” Hirotsu states. “We invented the C. elegans cancer test based on the revolutionary new idea of leveraging the unrivaled olfactory senses of roundworms for the benefit of society. We are dedicated to pushing forward rigorously with our research and development to bring N-NOSE to market at the earliest possible juncture.”
In Japan, cancer has been the leading cause of death since 1981. While the most effective way to prevent cancer deaths is early detection and early treatment, cancer screening rates in Japan lag at approximately 30 percent, Hirotsu says. This rate is low in comparison with other developed nations and is a major factor underlying Japan’s high cancer mortality rate.
“Accordingly, we set out to develop cancer screening technology that is simple, affordable and capable of diagnosing all types of cancer at an early stage with high precision,” Hirotsu says, adding that the roundworms’ sensitivity does not seems to decline with respect to early-stage cancers.
Hirotsu and colleague Hideto Sonada decided to investigate roundworms’ cancer-detecting skills after Sonada encountered a 63-year-old man with Anisakis larvae in his digestive system. This roundworm can be picked up by eating infected raw fish. The parasites had attached themselves to a small lesion in the man’s stomach that turned out to be the early stages of gastric cancer, Sonada says. The case is one of 29 recorded since 1970 of roundworms attaching themselves to cancers, with 62 percent of the roundworms at the tumor sites when the cancer was still in its early stages.
Research thus far has shown roundworms successfully identified cancer in all nine widely varying types they were exposed to: stomach, colorectal, colon, oesophageal, pancreas, bile duct, prostate, breast and lung cancer. HirotsuBio hopes to have a commercial product ready by 2019.

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