Magnetic pull

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Researchers have figured out how to employ a magnetic wire to detect up to 80 times more free-floating cancer cells in blood than can be found through simple blood tests.

Jeffrey Fisher image

The technology has been used only in pigs, but researchers believe it could eventually enhance cancer detection, diagnosis and even treatment in humans, according to a study published July 16 in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

A typical blood test involves drawing about 5 milliliters of blood, an amount so small that few of the cancer biomarkers would likely show up, said study senior author Sanjiv Gambhir, MD, PhD, professor and chair of radiology, and director of the Canary Center at Stanford for Cancer Early Detection.

“We estimate that it would take about 80 tubes of blood to match what the wire is able to sample in 20 minutes,” Gambhir said.

The procedure involves injections of magnetic nanoparticles that glom on to floating cells that have sloughed off cancerous tumors. The magnetic wire then is inserted into a vein and, before long, the magnetized cells start sticking to it and can be extracted for analysis.

Gambhir imagines the magnetic wire could be used not only for early cancer detection but as a treatment — by leaving it in the vein longer. “That way, it almost acts like a filter that grabs the cancer cells and prevents them from spreading to other parts of the body,” he said.