The story of how a worm turned... into a bringer of medical miracles

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An employee of Aquastream company presents a marine worm, on June 8, 2017 in Ploemeur, western France. These marine worms stock 40 percent more oxygen than human haemoglobin and could be used in surgery. / AFP / LOIC VENANCE
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An employee of Aquastream company works on basins to cultivate marine worms, on June 8, 2017 in Ploemeur, western France. These marine worms stock 40 percent more oxygen than human haemoglobin and could be used in surgery. / AFP / LOIC VENANCE
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An employee of Aquastream company looks at marine worms through a microscope, on June 8, 2017 in Ploemeur, western France. These marine worms stock 40 percent more oxygen than human haemoglobin and could be used in surgery. / AFP / LOIC VENANCE
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An employee of Aquastream company presents a marine worm, on June 8, 2017 in Ploemeur, western France. These marine worms stock 40 percent more oxygen than human haemoglobin and could be used in surgery. / AFP / LOIC VENANCE
Updated 31 July 2017
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The story of how a worm turned... into a bringer of medical miracles

FRANCE: For centuries, the only use humans found for the lugworm — dark pink, slimy and inedible — was on the end of a fish hook.
But the invertebrates’ unappreciated status is about to change.
Their blood, say French researchers, has an extraordinary ability to load up with life-giving oxygen.
Harnessing it for human needs could transform medicine, providing a blood substitute that could save lives, speed recovery after surgery and help transplant patients, they say.
“The haemoglobin of the lugworm can transport 40 times more oxygen from the lungs to tissues than human haemoglobin,” says Gregory Raymond, a biologist at Aquastream, a fish-farming facility on the Brittany coastline.
“It also has the advantage of being compatible with all blood types.”
Raymond and his team, which specializes in fish egg production, joined forces with biotech firm Hemarina in 2015 in the hope of securing a reliable means of lugworm production.
The facility now churns out more than 1.3 million of the creatures each year, each providing tiny amounts of the precious haemoglobin.
“We started basically from zero. Since the worm had never been studied, all parameters needed inventing from scratch, from feeding to water temperature,” says project researcher 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 reaction, 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, close to Plomeur, extracted and purified haemoglobin from local-caught lugworms and tested it on lab mice. The rodents were fine and 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 help to conserve organs for transplantation.
Clinical trials of the blood product began in 2015. Lugworm haemoglobin was used last year in 10 human kidney transplants at a hospital in the western French city of Brest and 60 patients are currently 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 25 centimeters (10 inches) in length and has several bushy external gills along its body.
At high tide, submerged in water, the worm builds up stocks of oxygen that, astonishingly, 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, 10 cms 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,” explained Raymond.
Aquastream struggled at first with basic rearing problems — including how to tell a male lugworm from a female.
After nine months of testing, “50 percent of adult worms survived and a good deal of them produced eggs,” said Herault.
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 that her firm’s collaboration with Hemarina could provide the world of medical science with a sustainable supply of the worms.
“There is nowhere else in France or the world that has the capacity to produce lugworms in a controlled environment to ensure a supply of their haemoglobin,” she says.
Scientists are excited by the potential of lugworm haemoglobin — although they also point to a rigorous testing procedure before the molecule can be certified as safe and effective for humans.
“The properties of extracellular haemoglobin extracted from the lugworm could help protect skin grafts, promote bone regeneration and lead to universal blood,” says Raymond.
If this vision turns real, lugworm blood may also allow donor organs to live longer outside the bodies, potentially helping thousands of recipients each year.
And, one day, freeze-dried lugworm blood could be a crucial backup for standard blood supplies — a boon in combat zones or disasters.


Saudi Arabia in the crosshairs as cyber-raids target Gulf

More than 90 percent of malware is distributed by email with hackers seeking to trick users with fake invoices and other scams. (Shutterstock)
Updated 15 February 2019
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Saudi Arabia in the crosshairs as cyber-raids target Gulf

  • Cyberattacks were ranked as the second most important risk after an “energy shock” in these three Gulf states, according to the WEF’s flagship Global Risks Report 2019
  • Criminal phishing attacks rising sharply, cybersecurity experts warn

RIYADH: Online phishing attacks are on the rise with experts warning of increasing numbers of cyber-raids targeting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Phishing is a type of fraud where criminals target online victims, using deception to acquire users’ credentials, ranging from passwords to credit card and bank account details, and other financially sensitive information.
Cybersecurity experts say the numbers of attacks worldwide have risen dramatically, increasing from over 2 million in the first two weeks of February last year to more than 4.3 million in the same period this year.
Mohammed Khurram Khan, a professor of cybersecurity at King Saud University (KSU), told Arab News: “Saudi Arabia, due to its strong position in political, social and economic spheres, has been a key target for cyber-intrusions by state and nonstate actors aiming to compromise its national security.
“Various types of malware and scams, especially phishing, are used to target critical information infrastructure, which serve as the backbone of the economy,” he said.
More than 90 percent of malware is distributed by email with hackers seeking to trick users with fake invoices and other scams, said Khan, who is also the founder and CEO of the Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research, a Washington-based cybersecurity think tank.
“Computer users in Saudi Arabia have been confronted with more than 30 million phishing emails in recent years,” he said.
Khan said that awareness, training and “cyber-hygiene” were important to protect users and organizations from phishing scams.
KSU has developed a pioneering cybersecurity awareness product, “Rawam,” which helps organizations train employees to deal with malicious hacking, malware, ransomware, phishing and cyberattacks.
The bilingual tool has been used to train 100,000 staff in 40 different organizations, he said.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) last month warned of the growing likelihood of cyberattacks in the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar particularly vulnerable.
Cyberattacks were ranked as the second most important risk after an “energy shock” in these three Gulf states, according to the WEF’s flagship Global Risks Report 2019, released ahead of the annual forum in Davos.
Cybersecurity experts from the Kaspersky Lab, a multinational digital security provider, detected a sharp increase in phishing activities on the eve of the Valentine’s Day.
The overall number of user attempts to visit fraudulent websites detected and blocked by Kaspersky Lab in the first half of February exceeded 4.3 million.
“The spike offers a reminder that we should be cautious when surfing the web, even if we are just buying flowers for our loved one,” said Andrey Kostin, a senior web content analyst.