A method that uses genetically modified worms to detect early stage pancreatic cancer has been developed by Japanese biotech startup Hirotsu Bio Science Inc.

The cancer screening test uses the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, or roundworms, to detect pancreatic cancer in just a drop of urine. Researchers determined that the nematode's olfactory receptors feature a gene that responds only to the urine from pancreatic cancer patients.

Source: Kbradnam/CC BY-SA 2.5Source: Kbradnam/CC BY-SA 2.5

In the lab, the engineered roundworms successfully recognized all of the 22 urine samples from pancreatic cancer patients — even in the samples from patients in the early stages of the disease.

Although the method was developed back in 2015, the test has only been recently enhanced to precisely detect specific types of cancer. When the gene found in the nematode's olfactory receptors that responds to pancreatic cancer patients’ urine is disabled, the roundworms respond to the urine samples of people with lung, stomach, and other cancers, but no longer to the urine samples from people with pancreatic cancer.

According to the startup, the method is 100% accurate for detecting pancreatic cancer and 91.3% for detecting other types of cancer.

Although the research shows promise for detecting a cancer that is typically detected only after it has spread throughout the body, the startup cautions that further testing needs to be done before the method is used to complement routine pancreatic cancer screenings.

The study, Scent test using Caenorhabditis elegans to screen for early-stage pancreatic cancer, appears in the journal Oncotarget.

To contact the author of this article, email mdonlon@globalspec.com