A MED­I­CAL MIR­A­CLE

New Straits Times - - World -

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 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

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