Tiny Magnets to Capture Cancer

Scientists use magnetic nanoparticles to reign in cancer cells

Ovarian Cancer
Ovarian cancer cells were injected into mice, then lassoed using magnets.Nathan Bowen/Georgia Tech

Catching cancer before it metastasizes, or spreads throughout the body, is one way to increase your chances of survival. Now scientists may have found a way to help even when cancer is already on the move, by using magnets to lasso cancer cells and drag them out of the body. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have shown that magnetic nanoparticles—tiny shards of magnetic metal, less than a hundred thousandths of an inch in diameter—can be attached to cancer cells, which can then be manipulated and moved with another magnet.

Published in the July issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the results of the study describe two experiments. In one test, researchers injected mice with ovarian cancer cells that had been dyed and soaked in a protein that would bind them only to cancer and not to regular cells. After gently massaging a mouse to disperse the cells, researchers placed a magnet on the mouse's belly for 30 seconds. The glowing cells were clearly visible through the skin where the magnet had rested.

Using a circulating pump system, researchers were also able to show that a magnet could draw the glowing cells to the side of a plastic tube, suggesting that metastasized cells could possibly be removed from the body with a dialysis-like procedure—filtering the blood of any magnetized cancer cells.

The study projects that this technique has the potential to be used to enhance and support other cancer treatments like surgery and chemotherapy, by curbing metastatic spread. But according to the authors, more studies need to be done to assess any toxic effects of the particles before any clinical trials can take place.