NUS scientists develop painless way to shrink breast cancer using magnetic fields

SINGAPORE – Scientists from the National University of Singapore (NUS) have found a painless way to kill breast cancer cells by exposing them to a pulsed magnetic field.

They hope that this method will reduce the dosage needed for chemotherapy in the future, so that patients will have fewer side effects.

The treatment uses magnetic pulses to stimulate respiration in the cancer cells, which have elevated levels of a protein, TRPC1, that is especially sensitive to the stimulation.

When exposed to the magnetic field, these cells essentially hyperventilate and eventually die.

Pre-clinical trials have shown that the magnetic treatment targets only cancer cells, unlike chemotherapy and radiation therapy, which can also damage healthy cells.

Magnetic fields can also target hidden cancer cells within a tumour that chemotherapy drugs travelling through the bloodstream cannot reach, said Associate Professor Alfredo Franco-Obregon from the NUS Institute for Health Innovation and Technology (iHealthtech), who led the development of the magnetic technology.

When undergoing the magnetic treatment, the patient lies face down on a therapy bed which has an opening for the chest region. The magnetic device – a short, hollow cylinder – is placed below the opening.

Once the device is powered up, a pulsed magnetic field similar in strength to what a hairdryer produces is emitted to the tumour and cancer cells.

The team said the strength of the device’s magnetic field is about 50 times greater than that of the earth’s, but 1,000 times smaller than conventional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). One treatment session would take an hour.

The NUS research team is planning to start a one-year clinical trial with the National University Cancer Institute, Singapore (NCIS) in the second half of this year, to determine the safety of the device. About 30 breast cancer patients will be involved.

The patients will try out the device for 30 to 60 minutes.

Clinicians will look out for any side effects such as toxicities or skin changes, and track any effects on wound healing after breast surgery, for instance, said Dr Joline Lim, a consultant at NCIS’ Department of Haematology-Oncology.

Research on the use of electromagnetism to fight cancer is ongoing globally. An Israel-born company has developed a helmet-like device that sends electric fields to brain cancer cells to disrupt their replication.

Prof Franco-Obregon noted that other existing electromagnetic therapies use a different way of delivering the magnetic fields that also stop healthy and necessary cells from dividing.

For those therapies, the magnetic fields are of a higher frequency and patients need continuous exposure for several hours.


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