Capturing Cancer Cells with Magnets

Scientists from Georgia Tech have invented a new way of battling cancer. Their new technology involves nanoparticles that attach themselves to cancer cells and guide them out of the body. With further development, this invention may help detect ovarian cancer and even prevent metastasis.

 Professor Z. John Zhang - the research advisor (Credit: Georgia Institute of Technology)
Professor Z. John Zhang –
the research advisor
(Credit: Georgia Institute
of Technology)

The scientists from Georgia Tech realized that magnetic nanoparticles could catch free floating cancer cells by attaching to molecules on their surface and flush them out of the body. This technology might have a special importance in ovarian cancer, as it’s characterized by free floating cancerous cells in the abdominal cavity. If these cells can be caught by the nanoparticles, the metastasis may be prevented.

The particles used in the following experiment have cobalt-spiked magnetite at their core and are just about 10 nanometers in diameter. Their surface holds a peptide (small protein like molecule) which was designed for getting attached to a marker that is found on most ovarian cancer cells. They are normally without any magnetic properties, but when a magnet is present, it attracts them.

The scientists tested the technology on mice. They first injected cancer cells into the mice’s abdominal cavities and then added the magnetic nanoparticles. They tagged the cancer cells with a green fluorescent marker and the nanoparticles with a red one. When a magnet was brought near the mice’s bellies, a concentrated area of green and red glow surfaced under the skin, which indicted to the researchers that the nanoparticles and cancer cells were attached to one another and the magnet dragged them both to the surface.

Magnetic Nanoparticles Capturing Ovarian Cancer Cells (Credit: Georgia Institute of Technology)
Magnetic Nanoparticles Capturing
Ovarian Cancer Cells (Credit: Georgia
Institute of Technology)

Although the experiment proved that an attachment between cancer cells and nanoparticles occurred, it did not show what proportion of cancer cells was caught by the nanoparticles. Some critics of this experiment think that this technology is more suitable for diagnosing but not treating metastasis. It is not clear whether the nanoparticles could significantly filter out the cancerous cells.

However, the authors are optimistic. Though the nanoparticles were tested inside the bodies of mice, they think it will be possible to use an external device that would remove a patient’s abdominal fluid, magnetically filter out the cancer cells, and then return the fluid to the body. This way, dangers of toxicity will be eliminated. First a patient would undergo surgery to remove the primary tumor and then proceed to the filtering treatment. Such a filter is currently in development and the scientists are already testing it on abdominal fluid from human cancer patients.

TFOT has recently covered the use of a magnet controlled camera for esophagus imaging which could detect early cancer growths, developed at the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering in Sankt Ingbert, Germany. Another related topic recently covered by TFOT deals with nanoworms that can be used as a non-invasive cancer treatment currently under development by a team from the University of California, San Diego.

The press release from Georgia Tech can be found at their website.