New breast cancer test uses magnetic nanoparticles to detect cancer
10 March 2008
A team from University College London (UCL) has developed a new
medical device that will make the early detection of breast cancer more
accurate, cost effective and easier to administer.
The team will use magnetic nanoparticles that attach to cancerous
cells and an extremely sensitive magnetometer called the ‘HistoMag’ to
detect the cells in samples of breast tissue.
“Each year 35,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK
and the testing programme is a massive undertaking,” says Professor
Quentin Pankhurst of the London Centre for Nanotechnology and the UCL
Department of Physics & Astronomy.
“Until now, pathologists had to stain tissue samples with brown dyes
to help them determine whether they were normal or cancerous. In terms
of streamlining the process, the main problem is that all of the results
are open to interpretation and each test has to be individually checked
by a specialist.
“At UCL we’ve been working in the relatively new area of biomagnetics
to develop a technique which provides more quantitative and reliable
results, whilst also enabling pathologists to identify abnormal tissue
sections much more quickly.
“Cancerous cells have a protein on their surface called HER2. We use
a solution of HER2 antibodies, tagged with magnetic nanoparticles, to
stain the tissue sample. Using the HistoMag we can detect the quantity
of tagged antibodies which attach themselves to the HER2 protein, which
in turn provides us with an accurate picture of the spread of cancerous
By automating the process through which cancerous cells are detected
and quantified, HistoMag will not only ease the pressure on pathologists
but also help to identify the 15-30% of patients who are likely to
benefit from being treated with the drug Herceptin. At a cost of £30,000
per patient per annum it is essential to target Herceptin at those women
who will respond positively to it.
The team won a prestigious Brian Mercer Feasibility Award from the
Royal Society for the new device. The team is one of only seven groups
to receive a Brian Mercer Feasibility Award from the Royal Society this
year. The £25,000 award will enable the team to re-engineer the HistoMag,
increasing its sensitivity before it goes on to clinical trials. Their
goal is to make the device generally available to pathologists in 2010.
The Royal Society Brian Mercer Awards were announced in a ceremony on
the 28th February 2008. More information on this and other award schemes
may be found on the Royal Society website.