Powerful magnets that cause cancer cells to 'self-destruct' could offer targeted treatment for tumours

By
Anna Hodgekiss

PUBLISHED:

11:40 GMT, 8 October 2012

|

UPDATED:

15:02 GMT, 8 October 2012

Magnets that cause tumours to
'self-destruct' could be a revolutionary new weapon in the fight against cancer.

Scientists in South Korea have
developed the method, which uses a magnetic field to trigger the cells to
effectively kill themselves.

The researchers have
demonstrated that the process works in bowel cancer cells and living laboratory
fish.

They now plan to test the technique on a range of cancers to see if
it can destroy other tumours.

Fighting cancer: The breakthrough treatment triggers the diseased cells to effectively commit suicide, blasting away the cancer from within

Fighting cancer: The breakthrough treatment triggers the diseased cells to effectively commit suicide, blasting away the cancer from within

Programmed cell death, or
apoptosis, as it is known, is one of the body's ways of getting rid of old,
faulty or infected cells.

In response to certain signals,
the doomed cell shrinks and breaks into fragments. These are then engulfed and
consumed by amoeba-like immune cells.

But with cancer, this cell-death
process often fails, so cells are allowed to keep dividing uncontrollably.

The new magnetic therapy
involves creating tiny iron nanoparticles attached to antibodies – proteins
produced by the body's immune system when it detects harmful substances.

These
iron nanoparticles then bind to the molecules on tumour cells.

When the magnetic field is
applied, the molecules cluster together, automatically triggering the 'death
signal'.

The process raises the hope of
new targeted treatments that could kill tumour cells resistant to the usual
process of cell death.

Reducing the risk: Recent research found an estimated 22,000 cancer cases could be avoided by maintaining a healthy weight

Reducing the risk: Recent research found an estimated 22,000 cancer cases could be avoided by maintaining a healthy weight

In the South Korean research,
bowel cancer cells were exposed to the nanoparticles and placed between two
magnets.

More than half the exposed cells
were destroyed by magnetic activation, whereas no untreated cells were
affected.

The research is published in the
journal Nature Materials.

Henry Scowcroft, at Cancer
Research UK's science information manager, said: 'This is fascinating but
extremely preliminary research.

'These Korean researchers have developed an
antibody-based molecule that, when activated by a magnetic field, can cause cancer cells to die in
highly artificial laboratory conditions and animal models.

'There's a long way to go before
it's ready to test in humans, but research like this shows just how ingenious
scientists around the world are becoming in the quest to beat cancer.'

However, simply maintaining a
healthy body weight could go a long way to preventing cancer occurring in the
first place.

A report published last week by the World Cancer Research fund
warned that more than 22,000 cases could be prevented every year.

Excess body weight raises the
risk of a host of diseases including cancers of the pancreas, breast, bowel,
oesophagus, kidney, womb and gall bladder.

However the rates of people
dying from cancer are predicted to fall by 17 per cent in the UK by 2030,
according to statistics released last month by Cancer Research UK.

For all cancers, 170 people in every 100,000 died from the disease in 2010. By 2030 it
is predicted this will fall to 142 in every 100,000.

This is largely due to earlier
diagnosis and improved treatments, but also reflects a reduction in smoking-related
cancers leading to fewer deaths.