17:53 GMT28 November 2020
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    The starting point for research into the unique new oncology detection method was man’s best friend. For over a decade now, scientists have known that canines have a nose for detecting everything from melanomas to lung, breast and bladder cancer with an accuracy of between 70 and 99 percent.

    Researchers in Japan have created an inexpensive biological kit that’s able to detect 15 different types of cancer, with the innovative method featuring an accuracy rate of 85 percent and costing under $90. The catch? The kit uses a type of roundworm, or nematode, the parasitic insect known to plague dogs, cats and humans unfortunate enough to catch it, usually after eating raw or undercooked fish.

    Fortunately, the method requires no actual interaction between patients and the parasites. In fact, all that’s required from the patient is a urine sample.

    Dr. Takaaki Hirotsu, president of Hirotsu Bio Science, the company which came up with the test, explained the thinking behind the innovative new technique in an interview.

    “The method is based on the motor reaction of nematodes to chemical stimulus – they move toward the smell that they like and away from the one they don’t like. This is a completely new, previously unknown type of analysis for oncology. On the basis of whether the worms move closer to the patient’s urine or not, we can determine if they have cancer,” Hirotsu said.

    The bioscientist explained that canines’ well-known cancer-sniffing abilities became the jumping off point for his company’s research. “The basis was the assumption that if dogs can distinguish people with cancer from those without it, nematodes, whose sense of smell is 1.5 times sharper than that of a dog, and who are able to detect the subtlest of odors undetectable by many devices, will also be able to distinguish a sick person from a healthy one,” he noted.

    Blat, the lung-cancer sniffing dog
    © Photo : Hospital Clínic de Barcelona
    Blat, the lung-cancer sniffing dog

    The assumption proved correct, and testing showed that the nematodes have an incredible knack for congregating around the urine of sick people, while showing little interest toward that of a healthy person. Clinical research has been carried out across 17 facilities across Japan over the past two years.

    According to the company, their testing method is not only capable of detecting more than a dozen different types of cancer, but of doing so earlier than conventional tests. The method has an overall estimated accuracy rate of 86.8 percent, including an 85 percent accuracy rate for early detections.

    Hirotsu’s tester was adopted by a number of medical facilities in Japan in January, with orders from 500 more facilities across the country. Interest has also been strong from abroad, the bioscientist said, clarifying that these are “not only orders” for the device, “but also proposals for joint research.”

    Caenorhabditis elegans, adult hermaphrodite
    © Wikipedia / Bob Goldstein, UNC Chapel Hill
    Caenorhabditis elegans, adult hermaphrodite

    At the moment, the roundworm method can detect the presence of cancer, but can’t identify its type. Identification will be the next step of research, and ambitious targets have already been set, Hirotsu said. “We are working on a special type of worms by changing their genes, which could determine a specific cancer type. We’ve set out a goal to create a roundworm that could determine an oncology as difficult to diagnose as pancreatic cancer, and to implement these kinds of analyses in a two year period,” the scientist noted.

    Cancer is one of the most frequent causes of death worldwide, killing more than 8 million people annually and expected to increase by more than 50 percent in the coming decades.

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