North Texas Daily

Flatworms could help with cure for cancer

Flatworms could help with cure for cancer

April 03
21:59 2013

Alexandra Nay / Contributing Writer

UNT researchers are betting that a tiny flatworm could someday help scientists find a cure for cancer.

The planarian, which regenerates itself in seven to 10 days, may reveal new data about regulating the growth of tumors, biology professor Barney Venables said.

“Cancer is essentially uncontrolled cell growth, and if we can study how planarian regulate growth, we can understand better how that process can get so out of whack,” Venables said.

Within the past three years, planarian have come to the forefront of cancer research, Venables said.  Traditionally most data for cancer research was collected from other animals, such as mice and zebrafish, which share some of the same genes as humans. Planarian worms also share some of the same genes that are responsible for suppressing tumors.

“We may not cure cancer today, but we can contribute by solving little pieces,” said Thomas Curran, a graduate student working on the research. “Then another person solves another piece, and that’s how we make progress.”

Biology senior Huy Nguyen, also works on the project and said planeria are easier to work with than other organisms because researchers can cut an individual flatworm into 300 pieces and end up with 300 new organisms in seven to 10 days.

In fact, the project started with only four planarian and now has thousands, he said. The research, which is being funded by the university, is in its developmental stage.

Venables is working on an official proposal in hopes of getting more funding for the project from research companies.

In the lab, video cameras record the activity of the planeria and sensors record their oxygen intake.

The researchers have to understand what the normal behavior for planarian is so they can compare it with reactions it has to the experiments with chemical stressors, Venables said.

Venables said they expose the planarian to contaminants placed in the same test plate. The contaminants, collected from Pecan Creek in Denton, include pesticides, chlorine and a pesticide named DDT. The team notes any changes in behavior and charts the effects.

“The majority of exposed planarian will grow tumors big enough to see with the naked eye,” Venables said. “It’s very unusual.”

Venables said it’s still too early to make any concrete hypotheses about the research. With some ingenuity, lots of testing, and enough data, these organisms could be the key to new advances in cancer research, he said.

“Much like how the fruit fly has provided us with a huge foundation for genetics research, planarian research could be one of the primary ways that we learn about how we operate,” Venables said.

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