Custom suits for worms that really deliver

Researchers from Osaka University have found that nematodes can be coated with a protective hydrogel sheath that can be engineered to carry functional cargo. This system could potentially be developed to deliver anti-cancer drugs to tumors using worms with a natural predilection for human cancer cells.

Fig. Naked A. simplex and A. simplex coated with hydrogel sheath containing fluorescence dye.

Researchers from Osaka University find that nematodes can be coated with hydrogel sheaths that carry functional cargos such as anti-cancer drugs

Osaka, Japan - James Bond’s legendary quartermaster Q provided the special agent with an endlessly array of tools and gadgets to help him accomplish his missions. Now, researchers from Japan have demonstrated equal prowess at equipping microscopic worms with a surprising arsenal of functional and protective factors.

 In a study to be published soon, researchers from OsakaUniversity have revealed that tiny free-range worms called nematodes can be coated in hydrogel-based “sheaths” that can be further modified to carry functional cargo.

Nematodes are free-living, microscopic worms that typically live in the soil or other environmental niches, and in some cases can invade the human body. Anisakis simplex, a nematode that usually lives in marine environments but can colonize humans when ingested, has demonstrated an unusual predilection for cancer cells.

A. simplex has been reported to sense cancer, potentially by detecting a cancer “odor,” and to attach to cancerous tissues,” says Wildan Mubarok, first author on the study. “This led us to ask whether it could be used to deliver anti-cancer treatments directly to cancer cells within the human body.”

 To investigate this possibility, the researchers first developed a system for applying hydrogel sheaths to nematodes by dipping them in a series of solutions containing chemicals that bind together to create a gel-like layer all over their surface. This process essentially custom-fits a suit about 0.01 mm thick to the worm in about 20 minutes.

“The results were very clear,” says Shinji Sakai, senior author of the study. “The sheaths did not in any way interfere with the worms’ survival and were flexible enough to maintain the worms’ motility and natural ability to seek out attractive smells and chemical signals.”

Next, the researchers loaded the sheaths with functional molecules and found that this protected the worms from ultraviolet light or hydrogen peroxide. What’s more, the sheaths could be loaded with anti-cancer agents that the nematodes, protected but unimpeded by their hydrogel armor, could transport and deliver to kill cancer cells in vitro.

“Our findings suggest that nematodes could potentially be used to deliver functional cargo to a range of specific targets in the future,” states Mubarok. Given the adaptability of the hydrogel sheaths, this worm-based delivery system holds promise not only for delivering anti-cancer drugs to tumor cells in patients, but it also has potential applications in other fields such as delivering beneficial bacteria to plant roots.


The article, “Nematode Surface Functionalization with Hydrogel Sheaths Tailored In Situ,” was published in Materials Today Bioat DOI:


About Osaka University

Osaka University was founded in 1931 as one of the seven imperial universities of Japan and is now one of Japan's leading comprehensive universities with a broad disciplinary spectrum. This strength is coupled with a singular drive for innovation that extends throughout the scientific process, from fundamental research to the creation of applied technology with positive economic impacts. Its commitment to innovation has been recognized in Japan and around the world, being named Japan's most innovative university in 2015 (Reuters 2015 Top 100) and one of the most innovative institutions in the world in 2017 (Innovative Universities and the Nature Index Innovation 2017). Now, Osaka University is leveraging its role as a Designated National University Corporation selected by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology to contribute to innovation for human welfare, sustainable development of society, and social transformation.




Published: 24 Jun 2022


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