Zapping Cancer Cells


Photo Credit: Dr. Hao Zeng, cover of Small, Volume 14, Issue 29

How do you kill tumors from the inside? Just add heat.

A futuristic tumor-destroying technology just got a whole lot more viable thanks to a research team led by University at Buffalo scientists.

Their innovation: nanoparticles that can create significant heat under a low magnetic field. Their goal: to one day fry cancer cells without harming healthy tissue elsewhere in the body.

The therapy has a number of potential benefits over other treatment routes. It’s minimally invasive and is not expected to generate the severe side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation.

“The treatment will only heat up the region where nanoparticles are without affecting healthy tissues that are farther away, so we anticipate few side effects,” says Hao Zeng, a professor of physics at UB, who led the project.

How it works

This form of cancer treatment is known as magnetic nanoparticle hyperthermia and already exists. But Zeng and his colleagues designed new magnetic nanoparticles that get hotter and generate heat faster than what’s currently out there, under low-field conditions that are thought to be safe for the human body.

A lot more research needs to be done before these nanoparticles are available to patients.

But here’s how the therapy would work: First, doctors would use targeting technologies to direct nanoparticles to tumors in patients’ bodies. Then, exposure to an alternating magnetic field would prompt the particles’ magnetic orientation to flip back and forth hundreds of thousands of times per second. This process would cause the particles to convert electromagnetic energy into tumor-zapping thermal energy.

Tested in bone cement

Zeng envisions bone cancer treatment as one early application for heated magnetic nanoparticles.

As he explains: “Typically, after a surgery to remove bone tumors, a synthetic material called bone cement is injected to fill the voids. If we introduce our nanoparticles into the bone cement, they can be heated on demand to kill any tumor cells that remain nearby, and help prevent recurrence of the cancer.”

To simulate this scenario, Zeng and colleagues embedded their zinc ferrite nanoparticles into bone cement and used it to heat up a pork rib. With just a small number of nanoparticles (1 percent of the bone cement, by weight), the experimental setup reached a temperature high enough to kill tumor cells.