Japanese Firm Uses Worm Noses To Develop World’s First Screening Test For Pancreatic Cancer


A Japanese biotechnology firm has used the powerful noses of tiny worms to develop the world’s first early screening test for pancreatic cancer, news agency Reuters reports. The firm, named Hirotsu Bio Science, launched its N-NOSE plus Pancreas test in November. The product was marketed directly to consumers in Japan.

The company aims to bring the screening test to the United States by 2023.

How does the test work?

According to the report, users can perform the test by sending a urine sample through a special mail pouch to a lab. There, the sample is placed in a petri dish with a species of nematodes. Scientifically called C. elegans, these nematodes have olfactory senses much more powerful than dogs, according to the firm. The nematodes follow their nose towards cancer cells.

Each worm is a millimeter long, and can act as a potent diagnostic tool. Takaaki Hirotsu, founder and chief executive of Hirotsu Bio Science, said it is very important to be able to sense trace amounts of disease indicators in order to detect the illness early, according to the report. He added that when it comes to sensing very trace amounts, machines do not stand a chance against the capabilities that living organisms have.

In January 2020, the firm launched its first N-NOSE consumer test. The company claimed that the test had the ability to tell if users were at high risk of cancer or not. Of the approximately 2,50,000 people who have undergone the original test, about five to six percent got high-risk readings.

For the latest version of the test, the firm made adjustments to the genetic code of the nematodes so that they would swim away from pancreatic cancer samples. Since pancreatic cancer is difficult to diagnose, and it is challenging to determine the speed of progression, the firm decided to develop a screening test for this disease.

More about the test

The firm, in the coming years, expects to roll out targeted tests for cervical, breast and liver cancers.

The cost of the pancreas test kit is 70,000 yen ($505), and is comparatively expensive for a diagnostic test in Japan. Some doctors have criticized the medical usefulness of the results.

The company has said that the test is intended as an early screening tool that can guide patients to further testing. This will help them receive treatment sooner.

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