Magnetic help for cancer

August 21, 2008

Any fans of the late Tommy Cooper out there? Well, a new scientific development would certainly have caused those famous eyebrows to wiggle. Instead of levitating a human, scientists seem to have found a way to levitate cancer cells. Magicians never reveal their tricks, but scientists like to share, so before we cry Abracadabra, just how is it done?

It’s not done with mirrors, but with magnets apparently. By binding magnetic nanoparticles (very tiny particles of materials which can occur naturally, or be manufactured, so that they are smaller than normal – usually sized between 1 and 100 nanometers) to cancer cells. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA took human ovarian cancer cells and made the cancerous cells rise to the skin surface by simply passing a magnet over them.

It may seem like magic, but the trick lies in the nanoparticles. The particles are ten nanometers or less in size and have traces of cobalt inside a ball of magnetite. Those metallic pieces are attached to a protein that only binds to a specific protein found on the surface of ovarian cancer cells. The researchers injected the nanoparticles, which also contained a colored dye, into mice with human ovarian cancer cells. The nanoparticles circulated though the mouse’s body and attached themselves to the cancer cells.

Then the researchers applied a magnet to the stomach of the mice and the cells rose and colored the skin of the mice. The researchers focused on ovarian cancer initially because of their previous research. However, they note that the nanoparticles were originally developed to bind to viruses, and depending on the protein being used, could also bind to proteins on the surface of other cancer cells, bacteria, and viruses.

It’s not ready to use yet however, as before any potential therapy can be applied to real human patients, the nanoparticles will have to pass clinical trials. The Georgia Tech scientists hope to begin two separate clinical trials within the year and their method would be to bring the cancer cells to the nanoparticles. By taking the blood and fluids out of the body and running them through a machine the nanoparticles would act like a filter, grabbing hold of any cancer cells that pass next to them while the healthy fluids pass back into the body. This way the nanoparticles never enter the body, decreasing the chances of any adverse reaction. The research could be used to identify and remove cancer cells, as well as bacteria and viruses, as in principle this technique could be applied to any pathogen that is found in the blood stream according to John McDonald, coauthor of the paper that appeared in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.


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