Scientists develop magnetically activated cancer-killing antibody

In collaboration with the Press Association

A cancer-killing antibody that can be activated by a magnetic field has been developed by scientists in Korea.

Although the technique is some way from patient tests, the researchers have demonstrated that the process works in bowel cancer cells and living laboratory fish.

Programmed cell death, or apoptosis, 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.

Often in cancer, apoptosis fails and cells are allowed to keep dividing uncontrollably.

The magnetic therapy involves creating tiny iron nanoparticles, which are attached to antibodies that can bind to "receptor" molecules on tumour cells.

When the magnetic field is applied, the molecules cluster together, automatically triggering the "death signal" that sets off apoptosis.

In laboratory experiments, bowel cancer cells were exposed to the antibodies, and placed between two magnets.

The cells were designed to light up green when apoptosis was taking place.

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

In another experiment, magnetically-induced apoptosis in zebra fish caused the creatures to grow abnormal tails.

Details of the research, led by Professor Jinwoo Cheon, from Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, appear in the journal Nature Materials.

Commenting on the research, a Cancer Research UK spokesperson called the research "fascinating", but cautioned that it was at an early stage.

Henry Scowcroft, the charity's science information manager, said: "There's a long way to go before this technique is 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."

Copyright Press Association 2012

References

Cho, M.H. et al. (2012). A magnetic switch for the control of cell death signalling in in vitro and in vivo systems, Nature Materials, DOI: 10.1038/nmat3430