• BREAKING NEWS ABC shows live and on-demand -- Download the WATCH ABC app!

Scientists using magnet therapy to try to stop ovarian cancer

April 7, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Ovarian cancer claimed the lives of 14,000 U.S. women last year alone. Early diagnosis is the best chance of survival, but recurrence of the cancer can be deadly. Now, scientists are looking at a new way to stop ovarian cancer in its tracks.

"I thought, in my mind, I was just going to have chemo, be over it in about a year and just move forward with my life, and all was going to be well," said 43-year-old Lisa Owens.

Three years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she's still fighting.

"I haven't really had much of a remission period. It's been a constant battle," Owens said.

Now, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology are studying a new weapon in the war against ovarian cancer, using magnetic nanoparticles engineered to attach to cancer cells circulating in the body.

"If we can target those magnetic nanoparticles to ovarian cancer cells, they'll attach to the free-flowing cancer cells, and then, in a magnetic field, we can sweep all of the cancer cells out," said John McDonald, Ph.D., professor of biology at Georgia Tech.

Like dialysis, fluid is circulated through and out of the patient's abdomen and into an external chamber where tiny magnetic nanoparticles grab the cancer cells. The cleaned fluid is returned to the body.

"To explain how many nanoparticles you might use for a treatmen, in about a gram of material, we're talking literally billions and billions of nanoparticles," said Kenneth Scarberry, Ph.D., post-doctoral fellow in nanochemistry at Georgia Tech.

It's an experimental technique that could one day improve survival.

"This is a very exciting type of procedure that's being evaluated because it has the potential of helping ovarian cancer patients because much of the cancer for ovarian cancer when it recurs, recurs back in the abdomen," said Dr. Sharmila Makhija, MD, director of gynecologic oncology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.

The cancer magnet procedure has not yet been tested in humans, and researchers say clinical trials are probably five years away. But if the magnetic nanoparticles actually work, it could set the stage for changing the way we look at ovarian cancer. Doctors could treat it as a chronic disease -- a disease that could be managed -- to give patients longer, healthier lives.

More information about ovarian cancer

RISK FACTORS: Certain risk factors may increase a woman's chance of developing ovarian cancer. A small percentage of ovarian cancers are caused by an inherited gene mutation. The genes known to increase the risk of ovarian cancerare known as BRCA1 and BRCA2. These genes were originally identified in families with multiple cases of breast cancer, but women with these mutations also have a significantly increased risk of ovarian cancer. Another known genetic link involves an inherited syndrome called hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC). Women in HNPCC families are at an increased risk forcancers of the uterine lining, colon, ovary and stomach. Other risk factors may include a family history of ovarian cancer, a previous cancer diagnosis, increasing age, never having been pregnant and the use of hormone replacement therapy for menopause.

TREATMENT: Treatment of ovarian cancer typically involves a combination of surgery and chemotherapy. Surgery usually involves the removal of both ovaries, fallopian tubes, the uterus, nearby lymph nodes and a fold of fatty abdominal tissue known as the omentum, where ovarian cancer often spreads. Surgeons also remove as much cancer as possible from the patient's abdomen, which is known as debulking. Less extensive surgery may be possible if the cancer was diagnosed at a very early stage.

CANCER MAGNET: Scientists are now looking at a new way to reduce the spread of ovarian cancer by pulling migrating cancer cells out of the body. Researchers at Georgia Tech are using magnetic nanoparticles that are engineered to attach to cancer cells. By introducing the cancer-grabbing magnetic nanoparticles into fluids removed from a patient's abdomen, researchers can use a magnetic field to pull out both the nanoparticles and cancer cells attached to them. The cleaned fluid would then be returned to the patient's body. The process would be similar to kidney dialysis in which blood is removed from the body, cleaned and returned. The nanoparticles would not enter a patient's body. This cancer magnet procedure has not yet been tested in humans. Researchers say clinical trials are probably five years away. (SOURCE: Georgia Tech)

For more information, please contact John Toon at Georgia Institute of Technology at Jtoon@gatech.edu.