Public Release: 

Tiny Worms Lead Simon Fraser Researcher To Potential Anti-Cancer Drugs, Antibiotics

Simon Fraser University

Simon Fraser University research on the use of microscopic worms to control insect pests has yielded unexpected results: natural chemicals--never seen before--with apparently potent capabilities as antibiotics and anti-cancer agents.

This surprising turn of events has led to one patent, five others pending and a spin-off company, says team leader Dr. John Webster of SFU's department of biological sciences.

Research on microscopic worms called nematodes led to the discovery. Scientists believe there are as many species of nematodes as there are insects. Virtually all are thin and worm-like; most are microscopic. In humans, they are known as roundworms.

Webster has spent 30 years researching nematodes and, in particular, how some species damage crops, while others kill insect pests.

When applied as insect-control agents, some nematodes act like hypodermic needles, injecting killer-bacteria into the host. Webster and his six-person interdisciplinary team have shown that these killer-bacteria create waste products which are toxic to fungi and other species of bacteria.

Intrigued by this development, the team--including Dr. Jianxong Li and Dr. Genhui Chen--proceeded to identify the chemical composition of some of these waste products and explore their potential uses as antibiotics and anti-cancer agents.

When mixed in a Petri dish with various types of human cancer cells including those associated with particular leukemias, prostate, lung and breast cancer, these waste products--dubbed "xenorxides"--have proven more effective than some traditional anti-cancer drugs in duplicate settings.

Related substances act as antibiotics. In test tube experiments they have proven effective in destroying the bacteria associated with tuberculosis and some highly infectious drug-resistant staphylococcus infections.

Scientists at the B.C. Cancer Agency are currently testing the xenorxides in rodents to assess their cancer-killing effectiveness in living organisms. Another organization is testing related substances as a drug treatment for tuberculosis.

The growing problem of drug-resistant bacterial strains lends added significance to the SFU research. "The chemical compositions of these substances are very different from those of existing drugs such as penicillin," says Webster. "Consequently, they may prove, one day, to be particularly potent medicinal weapons."

Nematodes are used locally to combat the black vine weevil which feeds off the valuable cranberry crop. Millions of nematodes are sprayed periodically onto cranberry fields as an ecologically benign control method.

It was in 1995, while investigating the impact such spraying had on the soil, that Webster's team zeroed in on the bacterial waste products. Finding some novel anti-microbial substances, they embarked on an entirely new research direction focusing on humans instead of insects.

Webster says these new substances now must prove themselves through a myriad of tests. Even the most optimistic scenario would require six to eight years of development before any human application could occur.

Funding for Webster's anti-cancer and antibiotic research has come from the federal Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the National Research Council and the private sector.

Contact: Dr. John Webster, (604) 291-3336 or 291-4105 Ken Mennell, media/public relations, (604) 291-3929


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