We’re all used to reading about various dubious remedies where magnets are supposed to treat a variety of ailments.  It was therefore a refreshing change to actually hear about a treatment for cancer based on magnetism with genuine potential this weekend.

The venue was the Royal Institution, where, as part of Open House weekend, members of their interdisciplinary research group were talking about their work.  One of their projects is looking at trying to treat cancer with magnets.  In particular magnetic nanoparticles injected into you.

These nanoparticles are supposed to latch onto a tumour thanks to a coating of an enzyme that binds onto cancerous cells but not onto healthy ones.  The enzyme has to be tailored to the particular type of cancer.   The next step is to hold an electromagnet over the area with the tumour.

If you pass an alternating current through the electromagnet, then the north and south poles on the electromagnet will keep switching back and forth.  This in turn will alternately attract, then repel the magnetic nanoparticles near the tumour.  As the nanoparticles move back and forth they rub against each other and the friction causes them to heat up.  Get them hot enough (around 42 degrees celsius) and the cancerous cells should start dying.

Thanks to a rubbery model of a patient with nanoparticles injected just under an area on its surface I could see this heating effect on a thermal imaging camera when an electromagnet was brought close.  When the electromagnet was held over an area of the model with no nanoparticles under the surface there was no heating.

This is all rather clever.  At the moment the team at the RI is trying to develop nanoparticles that are stronger magnets.  This will potentially allow the therapy to be used on tumours deeper within the body.  They are also working on testing the idea to see if it makes the transition from promising idea to workable treatment.

Something pedlars of dubious magnetic therapies should consider doing before unleashing their quackery on the world.