Hum­ble worm turns into bringer of med­i­cal hope

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD -

PLOEMEUR, France — For cen­turies, the only use hu­mans found for the lug­worm — dark pink, slimy and ined­i­ble — was on the end of a fish hook.

But the in­ver­te­brates’ un­ap­pre­ci­ated sta­tus is about to change.

Their blood, say French re­searchers, has an ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to load up with life-giv­ing oxy­gen.

Har­ness­ing it for hu­man needs could trans­form medicine, pro­vid­ing a blood sub­sti­tute that could save lives, speed re­cov­ery af­ter surgery and help trans­plant pa­tients, they say.

“The he­mo­glo­bin of the lug­worm can trans­port 40 times more oxy­gen from the lungs to tis­sues than hu­man he­mo­glo­bin,” says Gre­gory Ray­mond, a bi­ol­o­gist at Aquas­tream, a fish-farm­ing fa­cil­ity on the Brit­tany coast­line.

“It also has the ad­van­tage of be­ing com­pat­i­ble with all blood types.”

Ray­mond and his team, which spe­cial­izes in fish egg pro­duc­tion, joined forces with biotech firm He­ma­rina in 2015 in the hope of se­cur­ing a re­li­able means of lug­worm pro­duc­tion.

The fa­cil­ity now churns out more than 1.3 mil­lion of the crea­tures each year, each pro- vid­ing tiny amounts of the pre­cious he­mo­glo­bin.

“We started ba­si­cally from zero. Since the worm had never been stud­ied, all pa­ram­e­ters needed in­vent­ing from scratch, from feed­ing to wa­ter tem­per­a­ture,” said project re­searcher Gwen Her­ault.

Med­i­cal in­ter­est in the lug­worm — Areni­cola ma­rina — dates back to 2003, when the out­break of mad cow dis­ease in Europe and the world­wide HIV epi­demic be­gan to af­fect blood sup­plies.

The prob­lem was that an­i­mal hemoglobins, as a sub­sti­tute for the hu­man equiv­a­lent, can cause al­ler­gic re­ac­tion, po­ten­tially dam­ag­ing the kid­neys.

In lug­worms, though, he­mo­glo­bin dis­solves in the blood and is not con­tained within red blood cells as in hu­mans — in other words, blood type is not an is­sue — and its struc­ture is al­most the same as hu­man he­mo­glo­bin.

In 2006, the worm’s po­ten­tial was val­i­dated in a ma­jor study.

Sci­en­tists at Roscoff, close to Plomeur, ex­tracted and pu­ri­fied he­mo­glo­bin from lug­worms and tested it on lab mice. The ro­dents were fine and showed no sign of the im­mune re­sponse that dogged other an­i­mal sub­sti­tutes.

If proven safe for hu­mans, the re­searchers said, the worms’ oxy­gen-rich blood could tackle septic shock — a crash in blood pres­sure that can cause fa­tal mul­ti­ple or­gan fail­ure — and help to con­serve or­gans for trans­plan­ta­tion.

If the vi­sion turns into re­al­ity, lug­worm blood may also al­low donor or­gans to live longer out­side the bod­ies, po­ten­tially help­ing thou­sands of re­cip­i­ents each year.

And, one day, freeze-dried lug­worm blood could be a cru­cial backup for stan­dard blood sup­plies — a boon in com­bat zones or dis­as­ters.

KAZUHIRO NOGI / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ro­bots play in a soc­cer tour­na­ment at the RoboCup 2017 in Nagoya, Aichi pre­fec­ture, Ja­pan, on Sun­day. About 3,000 re­searchers and engi­neer­ing stu­dents took part in the event.

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