Magnets Made by Soil Bacteria Offer Hope for Breast and Prostate Cancer

In a “bugs as drugs” approach, medical researchers in England are using living bacterial magnets to guide viruses engineered to attack cancer tumors.

This process, which has several years of work behind it, has been shown to be able to successfully attack prostate and breast cancers, and has been awarded the Roger Griffin prize for cancer drug discovery.

Known as an “oncolytic virus,” it naturally occurs in nature, but can be modified to improve its efficacy and limit its virality. It causes cancer cells to burst open and die, and so many researchers are keen to harness this near-readymade solution. However, like all other viruses, they also attract the host’s immune system, meaning if they don’t reach their target fast enough, they can get vaporized by immune cells.

Oncologists have successfully used a kind of fat cell known as a liposome to coat and transport intravenous oncolytic viruses, which allows them to be taken up more quickly into tumorous areas.

Now, researchers at the Sheffield group, funded by Cancer Research UK, have also found they can guide the viruses quicker if they’re coated with magnetized particles. Believe it or not, engineers can make magnets fifty one-billionths of a meter, to arm the oncolytic viruses with. But there’s actually a much cheaper and easier way of doing this.

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Enter a kind of microbe found in soil that absorbs iron oxides to align itself with Earth’s magnetic field, called magnetosomes.

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“These microscopic magnets, they make are perfectly shaped and ideally suited to the microscopic packages we need to target deep cancers,” Dr. Faith Howard, a project leader at the Sheffield Group, told the Guardian.

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To date their research has focused on animal trials, and now the project needs to be able to manufacture enough supplies to complete a long human trial before the experimental “bugs as drugs” procedure can be proven to work.

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