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
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.
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.