A MEDICAL MIRACLE
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 haemoglobins, as a substitute for the human equivalent, can cause allergic reactions, potentially damaging the kidneys.
In lugworms, though, haemoglobin 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 haemoglobin.
In 2006, the worm’s potential was validated in a major study.
Scientists at Roscoff extracted and purified haemoglobin from local-caught lugworms and tested it on lab mice. The rodents 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 conserve organs for transplantation.
Clinical trials of the blood product began in 2015.
Last year, lugworm haemoglobin was used in 10 human kidney transplants at a hospital in the western city of Brest and 60 patients are enrolled in tests of the blood product across France.
The secrets of lugworm haemoglobin lie in its ability to survive in extreme conditions, burrowing into sand at the edges of the tide.
The worm grows to about 25cm in length and has bushy external gills along its body.
At high tide, submerged in water, the worm builds up stocks of oxygen that allow it to survive more than eight hours out of the water at low tide.
Anyone who has walked along a sandy beach at low tide will see evidence of lugworms, from the tiny coiled casts of sand they throw up from their burrow, 10cm below the surface.
But, apart from anglers who dig up the creatures for bait, lugworms are rarely seen, and breeding them is a novel challenge.
“The main difficulty is working with a small animal that lives its life hidden,” said Raymond.
Aquastream struggled at first with basic rearing problems, including how to tell a male lugworm from a female.
After nine months of testing, Herault said “50 per cent of adult worms survived and a good deal of them produced eggs”.
The larvae start out around 1mm in length and the worms are transported to Hemarina’s testing site once they reach 5mm.
Aquastream director Nathalie Le Rouilly said her firm’s collaboration with Hemarina could provide the world of medical science with a sustainable supply of lugworms. AFP