Cancer detector

A team from UCL has developed a new medical device which will make the early detection of breast cancer more cost effective.


A team from UCL has developed a new medical device which will make the early detection of breast cancer more cost effective and easier to administer.


The team – which recently won a prestigious Brian Mercer Feasibility Award from the Royal Society – plans to use magnetic nanoparticles and an extremely sensitive magnetometer called the ‘HistoMag’ to detect cancerous 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,’ said Prof 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.  All of the results are open to interpretation and each test has to be individually checked by a specialist, which makes the process extremely time consuming.


‘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,’ added Prof Pankhurst.


‘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. Then, 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 cells.’


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 per cent 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 £25,000 Brian Mercer Feasibility Award from the Royal Society will enable the team to re-engineer the HistoMag, increasing its sensitivity before it goes on to clinical trials. The device could be available to pathologists by 2010.