Researchers from Sweden's Lund University have suggested using magnetically controlled nanoparticles to force tumour cells to 'self-destruct' as part of future cancer therapy.
Professor Erik Renstrom said the technique offered a way to target selected cells without harming surrounding tissue, asserting that there were many ways to kill cells, but this method was contained and remote-controlled.
The advantage of the new technique was that it was much more targeted than trying to kill cancer cells with techniques such as chemotherapy.
Enming Zhang, one of the first authors of the study said chemotherapy could also affect healthy cells in the body, and it therefore had serious side-effects. He added, radiotherapy could also affect healthy tissue around the tumour.
Briefly, the technique involves getting the nanoparticles into a tumour cell, where their binding takes place with lysome, the units in the cell that perform 'cleaning patrols'.
The lysosomes are capable of breaking down foreign substances that enter a cell and can also break down the entire cell through a process known as 'controlled cell death', a type of destruction where damaged cells dissolved themselves.
The researchers used iron oxide nanoparticles treated with a special form of magnetism.
Once the particles gain entry into cancer cells, the cells are exposed to a magnetic field, and the nanoparticles start rotating in a way that causes the lysosomes to start destroying the cells.
This not the first attempt by a research group to try and treat cancer using supermagnetic nanoparticles, however, previous attempts had focused on using the magnetic field to create heat to kill the cancer cells.
The approach had the serious drawback of causing inflammation that risked harming surrounding, healthy tissue.
With the new method, on the other hand, in which the rotation of the magnetic nanoparticles can be controlled, affecting only the tumour cells that the nanoparticles had entered.
Though the new technique is primarily intended for cancer treatment, researchers say there may be other areas of application.