In its natural environment, C. elegans spends its brief life dining on microbes in the soil. But Jonathan Freedman of Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences envisions that, in a laboratory setting, these simple animals could substantially reduce, and in some cases perhaps eventually replace, the need for expensive, large-scale rodent studies
The tiny roundworm has long been a favorite among molecular biologists and health researchers since its 959 cells contain many genes and proteins that function similarly to those of higher animals, including humans. Freedman, an associate professor of environmental toxicology who has worked with C. elegans since graduate school, now seeks to apply this extensive knowledge about the roundworm's biology to answer questions involving toxicology.
"The idea is to quickly screen chemicals with C. elegans so you don't have to do so many mega-rat studies," Freedman said in an interview. "If Company X thinks it has a chemical that may be a nerve toxin or cause cancer, we will put it through our system to help find out. What we've done is save that company millions of dollars because it no longer has to do as large a rat study.
"It can cost a company $10 million and it may have to go through 100,000 rats over a year or two just to do a complete study on one chemical. With our worms, I envision we'll be able to get the whole thing done in a couple of weeks to maybe a month."
Freedman has a $2.4 million three-year contract with the National Toxicology Program (NTP) to evaluate the feasibility of such a "high-throughput" C. elegans toxicity testing system that will use robotic equipment to mix chemicals and sort worms efficiently.
Contact: Monte Basgall