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Science, Magnets and Medicine

by Guy McCardle

November 14, 2011

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Donate Maybe you’ve read (or have heard) recently where magnets have been used to treat cancer in the UK. “How magnets can help the body fight off prostate cancer” recently appeared in The Daily Mail. This piece is an example of how a cursory reading of an article can leave one with a serious misunderstanding of a topic.

Consider these opening statements:
A prostate cancer treatment that uses a magnetic force to help the body's own cells kill tumours is being developed by scientists.

They say it would be particularly effective for the most advanced forms of the disease for which there are few drugs available.

Unlike chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the treatment can kill cancerous cells without harming healthy tissue " which is what causes side effects such as extreme tiredness, nausea and hair loss.
If you read only those statements, you might assume that run of the mill “magnetic forces” are being used to help kill tumors. The article continues:
When prostate cancer develops some of the white blood cells, called macrophages, flock to tumours to try to fight them.

However, because these tumours grow and spread so rapidly the blood cells are unable to keep pace. To speed up their action, the researchers have injected the cells with magnetically-charged nanoparticles, each one 1/50th the width of a human hair.

This magnetic force enables the cells to move much more quickly around the body targeting tumours.
Only further on down the column does the truth come out:
Under the treatment, the cells would also be injected with a gene therapy known to kill tumours " making them even more effective.
Now I get it…all the magnetic nanoparticles are doing is helping to guide the gene therapy to the right place. Granted, getting the medicine to where it is needed is a good thing, but I found the rest of the article to be misleading and I’d bet that some readers will come away believing that magnetic forces, in and of themselves, can be effective in treating prostate cancer.

This other source tells the story in a more straightforward manner:
In laboratory tests, magnetic nanoparticles were used to steer therapeutic white blood cells into the hearts of tumours. The macrophage blood cells were "armed" with a virus which began to replicate after reaching the cancer target. Once infected, the cancer cells were destroyed. At the same time the multiplying virus spread to attack neighbouring prostate cancer cells.
Now I get it, the magnetized particles were embedded into macrophages which contained a virus that would attack the cancer cells once it got to them. Magnets were used to guide the "killer" macrophages into place.

This technique was developed by scientists at the University of Sheffield, in England. The researchers presented their findings at a national cancer research conference in Liverpool. Dr Jay Richardson, who led the research team, was quoted as saying "This magnetic targeting approach could be used to increase the efficacy of various cell-based gene therapies for cancer."

You have to turn to yet another article, however, to find out that the testing of this type with magnets is in very early stages and has yet to be tried in humans. Also, it is too early to tell what kind of efficacy the gene therapy may have if it does manage to get to the cancerous cells.

After a little research, I found out that perhaps The Daily Mail isn't where you want to go for your for the latest medical news. They are not solely to blame, however. Out of four different media sources, not one carried the entire story with the facts in context. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why so many of us in the United States are ill informed when it comes to current events in science.


Magnets "can help the body fight off prostate cancer"- MSN

Magnets May Help Treat Prostate Cancer, Scientists Say - Fox News

Magnets Help Fight Prostate Cancer - The Press Association

How Magnets Can Help the Body Fight Off Prostate Cancer - The Daily Mail Online

by Guy McCardle

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