Magnetic nanoparticles Curing Cancer?

magnetic nanoparticles

Iron nanoparticles under an electron microscope

Nanotechnology is one of the technologies that might provide the next quantum leap in medicine, step aside Scott Bakula. Nano means one billionth or 0.000000001 meters in length, which is miniscule in size. This nano tech can be anything that’s really small, in this case the nano refers to the magnetic nanoparticles of ironused as a cancer therapy.

In treating cancer there are a couple of ways to go about it. Radiation, chemotherapy or surgery. Radiotherapy is radiation, unfortunately not only cancer cells are damaged by radiation. Our normal healthy cells also takes a beating, which means side effects. Chemotherapy is usually a better option, it affects cells that divide rapidly more severely which works great against cancer cells but since we also have some normal cells that replenishes rapidly there are therefore some serious side effects associated with the use of Chemo as well. If the cancer is localized in a single location, your best bet is to just cut it out with surgery but this might not always be an option, since cancers have the nasty habit of spreading. Added to these options are the use of magnetic nanoparticles.

Magnetic Nanoparticles to Treat and Possibly Cure Cancer

Researchers have developed a concept called “magnetic hyperthermia”, where you expose tumors filled with magnetic nanoparticles to an alternating magnetic field. This heats the tumors to the point they disintegrate. The first step in this approach is to fill a tumor with magnetic nanoparticles such as iron. One way to do this is to simply inject it into the bloodstream of a patient with a tumor. Since tumors needs a rich blood supply to grow, the rapid expansion of blood vessels in tumors makes them shoddily built. This shoddy build means it has tiny leaks where the circulating iron can leak in and accumulate. In mice this has been known to take about 24 hours but would probably take longer in humans.

After the magnetic nanoparticles accumulates in the tumor the mice(or humans) is subjected to an alternating magnetic field by using a MRI machine. This magnetic field will heat up the tumor to feverish temperatures, about 40 degrees Celsius, for 60-90 minutes which will be enough for the tumor to break down.

Just injecting iron in to the bloodstream isn’t a precise method of delivery. This led researcher’s in Spain to design a bacteria that was filled with magnetic nanoparticles. These bacteria would have nothing to do with the bloodstream they would instead be eaten like a yoghurt or another probiotic food. The bacteria in this experiment leaked into the stomach lining and infiltrated tumors located near the stomach concentrating the magnetic nanoparticles in the tumors. Just have a yoghurt and wait a few hours and your first treatment is done!

There are of course challenges with approaches such as this. The main one being that mice and humans differ somewhat when it comes to composition. The heating has to be precise.  The effectiveness of the heating differ between what kind of molecules you are dealing with which varies between species. Another issue might be how toxic iron can be in large doses, so the dose has to be very precisely monitored, otherwise the heating of the material or just a too high concentration of iron might cause harm to normal healthy cells. The main advantages of using magnetic nanoparticles is that you can treat large spread out tumors such as lung tumors or metastases were it’s just too large an area to use radiation. The treatment could be especially important in brain tumors since they have an irregular shape and are especially hard to get to without damaging surrounding tissue.

This is a promising treatment approach but most of the work so far has been done in mice, with some trials in human patients. Things can however progress quickly if it’s deemed safe and effective. The future will tell if this will lead to a revolution in cancer treatment.

This article was sourced in part from an article that appeared in newsweek

content image credit: EMSL in accordance with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Cover image credit: Argonne National Laboratory in accordance with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0