Medical Minute 4-27: MNBT? Catching Cancer with Magnets

By: Vanessa Welch Email
By: Vanessa Welch Email

A handwritten message on the mirror reminds 43-year-old Lisa Owens of what could be.

"I thought, in my mind, I was just going to have chemo, be over it for a about a year and just move forward with my life, and all was going to be well," said Lisa Owens.

Three years after a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, she's still fighting.

"I haven't really had much of a remission period. It's been a constant battle."

Now, researchers at Georgia Tech are studying a new weapon in the war against ovarian cancer: Using these magnetic nanoparticles -- engineered to attach to cancer cells circulating in the body.

"If we can target those magnetic nanoparticles to ovarian cancer cells, they'll attach to the free-flowing cancer cells, and then, in a magnetic field, we can sweep all of the cancer cells out," said John McDonald, Ph.D., Prof. of Biology Georgia Tech.

Like dialysis, fluid is circulated through and out of the patient's abdomen and into an external chamber where tiny magnetic nanoparticles grab the cancer cells. The cleaned fluid is returned to the body.

"To explain how many nanoparticles you might use for a treatment... In about a gram of material, we're talking literally billions and billions of nanoparticles," said Kenneth Scarberry, Ph.D., Post-Doctoral Fellow Georgia Tech.

It's an experimental technique that could one day improve survival.

"This is a very exciting type of procedure that's being evaluated because it has the potential of helping ovarian cancer patients because much of the cancer for ovarian cancer when it recurs, recurs back in the abdomen," said Sharmila Makhija, M.D. , Director of Gynecologic Oncology at Emory University.

For this hopeful artist, help can't come soon enough.

"I am not going to quit."

She'll keep fighting as long as it takes.

For more information on other series produced by Ivanhoe Broadcast News contact John Cherry at (407) 691-1500,



BACKGROUND: According to the National Cancer Institute, 21,880 American women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2010, and 13,850 women died from the disease that same year. Most ovarian cancers are either ovarian epithelial carcinomas, meaning the cancer begins in the cells on the surface of the ovary or malignant germ cell tumors, meaning the cancer begins in the egg cells. Ovarian cancer often goes undetected until it has spread within the pelvis and abdomen. At this late stage, the cancer becomes difficult to treat and is often fatal.

RISK FACTORS: Certain risk factors may increase a woman's chance of developing ovarian cancer. A small percentage of ovarian cancers are caused by an inherited gene mutation. The genes known to increase the risk of ovarian cancer are known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes were originally identified in families with multiple cases of breast cancer, but women with these mutations also have a significantly increased risk of ovarian cancer. Another known genetic link involves an inherited syndrome called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC). Women in HNPCC families are at an increased risk for cancers of the uterine lining, colon, ovary and stomach. Other risk factors may include a family history of ovarian cancer, a previous cancer diagnosis, increasing age, never having been pregnant and the use of hormone replacement therapy for menopause.

TREATMENT: Treatment of ovarian cancer typically involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Surgery usually involves the removal of both ovaries, fallopian tubes, the uterus, nearby lymph nodes and a fold of fatty abdominal tissue known as the omentum, where ovarian cancer often spreads. Surgeons also remove as much cancer as possible from the patient's abdomen, which is known as debulking. Less extensive surgery may be possible if the cancer was diagnosed at a very early stage.
(SOURCE: The Mayo Clinic)

CANCER MAGNET: Scientists are now looking at a new way to reduce the spread of ovarian cancer by pulling migrating cancer cells out of the body. Researchers at Georgia Tech are using magnetic nanoparticles that are engineered to attach to cancer cells. By introducing the cancer-grabbing magnetic nanoparticles into fluids removed from a patient's abdomen, researchers can use a magnetic field to pull out both the nanoparticles and cancer cells attached to them. The cleaned fluid would then be returned to the patient's body. The process would be similar to kidney dialysis in which blood is removed from the body, cleaned and returned. The nanoparticles would not enter a patient's body. This cancer magnet procedure has not yet been tested in humans. Researchers say clinical trials are probably five years away.
(SOURCE: Georgia Tech)

John Toon, Research News & Publications Office
Georgia Institute of Technology
(404) 894-6986


John McDonald, Ph.D., professor of biology at Georgia Tech, discusses a potential treatment for ovarian cancer.

When you started this research was there a particular problem or something you were trying to solve or fix or change in terms of ovarian cancer and its progression?

Dr. John McDonald: The Ovarian Cancer Institute is focused on both early diagnostics and better therapeutics. As you probably know ovarian cancer is a disease that is usually not diagnosed until very late in its progression. The prognosis is very poor by that time. So, one area of interest for us is early diagnostics, which we are working on. But, even if that is successful, there is still going to be a number of patients that do not get diagnosed early and we have to come up with better therapies. One of the problems with ovarian cancer is it’s highly metastatic especially at late stages. And that occurs primarily due to cells sloughing off the primary tumor into the abdominal cavity and spreading to other organs, the omentum and the liver are primary targets. So, with technology that was established here by a postdoc, Ken Scarberry, in my laboratory using magnetic nanoparticles that we direct towards ovarian cancer cells, we are able to target the nanoparticles directly to the cancer cells. They attach to the free-floating ovarian cancer cells and then we can pull them out or sweep them out of the body in a magnetic field. That was the goal, to see if we could reduce the number of metastasizing cells and thereby increase the life span of the patients with the disease.

Please explain what a nanoparticle is? And why does it attach to a magnet?

Dr. John McDonald: A nanoparticle is just a generic term for a very small, microscopic size, particle. In our case, the nanoparticle we are working with is a magnet already. It can be magnetic if placed in an appropriate magnetic field. So, the concept is if we can target those magnetic nanoparticles to ovarian cancer cells they will attach to the free-floating cancer cells and then in a magnetic field we can sweep all of the cancer cells out from the abdominal cavity of the patient thereby reducing the probability of spreading to the liver, or the omentum.

Have you seen some early signs that this could actually work?

Dr. John McDonald: Yes, in preliminary experiments done in animal models, in mice, we’ve been able to increase longevity of the animals with ovarian cancer by about 1/3. So, if that is extrapolated to humans that could tremendously increase the life span of the patient with the disease. What we are hoping is that, by these kinds of technologies and by expanding the life span, we would convert cancer, ovarian cancer in particular, from a deadly disease to a chronic disease. That is, you may not ever completely get rid of it, but if we can treat it and expand your life expectancy there’s a good chance you’ll die of something else and not from the cancer. Therefore, it becomes a manageable disease. And we are hoping that this technology maybe one of the things that would lead us towards that end.

How do you envision the process working as far as introducing the use of the magnet and getting the particles out?

Dr. John McDonald: The way we would envision this working is not to add the particles into the patient directly, but to do it in a device that would be outside the body. There would be a perfusion system, something analogous to blood dialysis so that you have perfusion of the fluid being pumped through the abdominal cavity and out. When the fluid comes out of the patient, it would go through a chamber where the magnetic nanoparticles would be added. They would attach to the cancer cells that are floating by and then there would be a second chamber, a magnetic field chamber, where all the cancer cells would be trapped. And so by this process we would be sweeping out or cleaning out the abdominal cavity of any free-floating cancer cells.

One more time about how the perfusion would work and how you would trap the cancer cells.

Dr. John McDonald: The plan would be to set up a system analogous to a dialysis system where patient fluid would be perfused through the patient, it would come out into a chamber where the magnetic nanoparticles would be added, they would complex with the cancer cells, bind to the cancer cells and then it would go into a magnetic field where they would be trapped so that we would be screening or sweeping the cancer cells out of the fluid. The goal would be to reduce the number of free-floating cancer cells in the abdominal cavity of the patient, thereby, reducing the chances of metastasis or spread.

How far away is this in terms of being a real possibility as an option for treatment?

Dr. John McDonald: We’re at the stage now where we are working with engineering firms to scale up the device that we were using on animals, up to the size that could be used on humans. That should take a couple of years to get a prototype device. At that point we should be able to move into stage one trials. If everything goes well, I think we’re looking at five years down the road when we may be able to introduce this into clinical practice.

Do you think that this could be a pretty big breakthrough for ovarian cancer?

Dr. John McDonald: We think so because most ovarian cancer patients do not die from the primary tumor. That can be removed or treated effectively with chemotherapy. The problem is the metastasis. If we can reduce the level of metastasis in these patients, we think we can significantly increase their life span. And, as I said, hopefully they’ll die of something else not of ovarian cancer.

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