Magnetic nanoparticles target human cancer cells

Magnetic nanoparticles target human cancer cells

In 2008, scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the Ovarian Cancer Institute developed a potential treatment to fight cancer using magnetic nanoparticles designed to attach themselves to cancer cells. They found in their groundbreaking tests on mice that the particles not only attached to cancer cells, but they also moved those cells.

In what may well prove to be some of the most exciting health news in the year to come, the group announced in the journal Nanomedicine in December and further publicized on Tuesday that it has replicated the study on human cancer cells, with the nanoparticles appearing to be every bit as effective.

Lead Georgia Tech researcher Ken Scarberry explains how it works:

Often, the lethality of cancers is not attributed to the original tumor but to the establishment of distant tumors by cancer cells that exfoliate from the primary tumor. Circulating tumor cells can implant at distant sites and give rise to secondary tumors. Our technique is designed to filter the peritoneal fluid or blood, and remove these free-floating cancer cells, which should increase longevity by preventing the continued metastatic spread of the cancer.

The idea came to Scarberry when he was a Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech. Originally, he thought he could use magnetic nanoparticles to extract viruses and virally infected cells, and his adviser suggested that he also investigate their effect on cancer cells.

He published his first paper on the particles targeting cancer cells in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in July 2008. In that paper, he and his adviser, biology professor and associate dean John McDonald, showed that by giving mice cancer cells a fluorescent-green tag and staining the magnetic nanoparticles red, they were able to apply a magnet and move the green cancer cells to the abdominal region.

Today, McDonald and Scarberry, who is now a post-doc in McDonald's lab, are "primarily interested in developing an effective method to reduce the spread of ovarian cancer cells to other organs," says McDonald, who is also chief research scientist at the Ovarian Cancer Institute.

In this latest round of testing, their technique appears to work as well at capturing cancer cells from human patient samples as it did in mice. The team says its next step is to test whether the technique works in live animals, instead of just cells; if it does, they'll move on to test it on actual people.


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