New Inexpensive Cancer Screening Kit Uses Blind Worms That Smell Urine

A Japanese firm has released a new early detection kit for a variety of cancers that uses urine-sniffing roundworms to detect cancerous odors, NHK reported.

Hirotsu Bio Science claims that their clinical trials found the test effective in 85 percent of cases using just a single drop of urine. Doctors in Japan could begin using the system as early as January 2020, with each test costing approximately $90.

The company did not immediately respond to an email from Newsweek asking whether the firm planned to make the test available outside of Japan. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not evaluated the test.

The advantage of Hirotsu's system is that a single test can be used to detect the presence of multiple possible cancers without performing a biopsy or blood draw.

According to New Scientist, Japanese researchers first started investigating the cancer-smelling abilities of the Caenorhabditis elegans worm in 2015.

Caenorhabditis elegans roundworm
A fluorescence micrograph image of a Caenorhabditis elegans roundworm HeitiPaves / Getty Images

Doctors Takaaki Hirotsu and Hideto Sonada were put on the trail of the worm after treating the case of a 63-year-old man with its larvae in his stomach. The parasite can be transmitted to humans through eating raw or undercooked fish.

When they examined the man, they found the worms had attached themselves to a cancerous lesion in his stomach. They then found several similar reported cases of roundworm larvae being discovered in the vicinity of cancer cells and began to study whether it was their sense of smell that brought them towards tumors.

In a series of experiments, the doctors placed roundworm larvae in petri dishes with both cultured cancer cells and other types of human cells, and the worms reliably migrated towards the cancerous samples, New Scientist reported.

The team then conducted a similar test with the urine of people with and without cancer, where the worms traveled towards the positive samples 96 percent of the time.

Their experiments were conducted on patients with nine different types of cancer, including breast, lung, stomach, colon and pancreatic, and the worms worked across the board.

A number of animals have been shown to be able to use their sense of smell to detect subtle changes in the body caused by cancer. Dogs have been trained to identify cancer by smelling urine, feces, and even the breath of patients.

Additional research also indicates that some parasitic worms could cause cancer. The group known as trematodes, which feed on tissue in the bladder and liver, cause chronic inflammation in those organs that facilitates mutation. They also excrete proteins that increase that inflammation.

In Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, these worms are responsible for the majority of bladder and liver cancer, according to an article in Frontiers. Truly, worms are an animal of contrast.