A marine worm, life saver

- FR- EN
 (Image: Pixabay CC0)
(Image: Pixabay CC0)

In 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, we spoke with Franck Zal, a doctor in marine biology from Sorbonne University and founder of the company Hemarina. At the time, HEMO2life - their flagship product created from the hemoglobin of the marine worm, the arenicole - was envisaged to improve the oxygenation of patients suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome. Three years later, HEMO2life obtained the CE mark for its action on the preservation of grafts awaiting transplantation. The product can now be marketed in Europe.

Arenicola marina. Behind this Latin name, hides the marine worm, a small fascinating being present on Earth for 450 million years that likes to hide under the sand of the beaches of the Atlantic and the English Channel. Lurking, without oxygen for hours, it waits patiently for the return of the high tide to surface and catch its breath.
It is not a super power that allows him to stay under the sand without breathing, but a very oxygenating hemoglobin. Indeed, each molecule of his hemoglobin can fix 40 times more oxygen than ours! Franck Zal, a former professor at Sorbonne University and researcher at the CNRS, discovered this incredible ability about 15 years ago during his thesis directed by Professor André Toulmond, former director of the Roscoff Biological Station (Sorbonne University/CNRS).

Years later, in 2007 to be precise, he decided to set up Hemarina, his own research laboratory in Morlaix, Finistère. With his team of scientists, he studied the arenicole from every angle and discovered that this unique worm could facilitate organ transplants by increasing the survival of transplanted cells. The HEMO2life medical device was born.

Promising clinical trials

If an organ fails and no treatment is possible, transplantation is the last therapeutic option considered for sick patients. However, today, transplants can only be maintained in good working order for a few hours after they have been removed: 3 to 4 hours for a heart, 6 hours for a liver, 6 to 8 hours for a lung, 24 to 36 hours for a kidney. On January 1, 2023, according to the latest figures from the biomedicine agency, 10,810 people were waiting for a transplant, all organs combined.

The clinical trial conducted by Hemarina between 2016 and 2018 in several hospitals in France, evaluated the efficacy of the universal oxygen carrier HEMO2life in renal transplantation. "The success of this clinical study in the field of graft preservation confirms the full potential of HEMO2life, which contains a molecule that transports physiological oxygen and delivers it without oxidative stress to the organs," said Franck Zal in a press release. In addition to not altering clinical protocols, the product has demonstrated:

  • A 98.3% survival rate after 4 years versus 86% under conventional preservation conditions.
  • A decrease in ischemia-reperfusion damage, allowing for accelerated graft recovery after transplantation
  • Decreased use of Belatacept, an immunosuppressant used in the event of a graft rejection event, over a four-year period.

A world first in India and a major breakthrough

In September 2021, the marine worm molecule HEMO2life was involved in a double forearm transplant at the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences (AIMS) in Kochi, India. The operation allowed the reconstruction of both forearms of the patient, which had been severed in an accident. The molecule allowed the grafts to remain intact and to restart more quickly.

One year later, at the same time, Hemarina received the CE mark for HEMO2life. This certification is a major step forward: it allows the product to be marketed on the European market and "translates the conformity of the HEMO2life medical device with the essential safety and clinical benefit requirements set by European regulations", says Franck Zal in a press release.

The strong potential of this unique medical device paves the way for future clinical trials in other organ transplants such as liver, the most commonly transplanted organ after kidney.

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Covid-19. A marine worm to the rescue of patients. Interview with Franck Zal, co-founder of Hemarina