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Scientists use magnets to detect cancer

A small magnetic wire that attracts nanoparticles engineered to stick to tumor cells may stand to detect cancer earlier.

If I told you there was a magic wire that could one day detect cancer cells floating in your bloodstream, you might think it's science fiction. Well — it's not.

Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD, professor and chair radiology at Stanford, has devised a slim, short magnetic wire that pull in cancer cells freely floating in the bloodstream. Here's how the technique works, as described in our press release:

The wire, which is threaded into a vein, attracts special magnetic nanoparticles engineered to glom onto tumor cells that may be roaming the bloodstream if you have a tumor somewhere in your body. With these tumor cells essentially magnetized, the wire can lure the cells out of the free-flowing bloodstream using the same force that holds family photos to your refrigerator.

The magnetic nanoparticles are injected, they scour the blood for floating tumor cells, latch on, and continue to float about. If they near the wire, they're compelled by magnetic force, and the tumor cell-nanoparticle complex clings to it.

A paper describing the tactic was published in Nature Biomedical Engineering today.

Earlier cancer detection is a highly sought-after goal in medicine; the earlier the disease is detected, the easier it will be to treat, presumably. But detection methods, especially through blood (such as a simple blood draw) are not yet up to snuff. More from the release:

'We estimate that it would take about 80 tubes of blood to match what the wire is able to sample in 20 minutes,' Gambhir said. Of course, he continued, it’s not practical to remove 80 test tubes of blood from one person; that’s more than a half-liter. 'So, we’re hoping this approach will enrich our detection capability and give us better insight into just how rare these circulating tumor cells are, and how early on they exist once the cancer is present.'

What's more — the wire's magnetism isn't limited to just cancer. It could siphon away any disease biomarker (a type of molecular signal that flags illness) that's present in the blood, depending on what the nanoparticle is engineered to seek out.

So far, the wire has only been tested in pigs, as some of their veins are similar to the size and shape of veins in the human arm. Gambhir's next step is to apply for Food and Drug Administration approval so that he and his team can test the success of the wire in humans.

Photo by Zureks

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