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Magnetic Bacteria Fight Hard-to-Treat Tumors

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Researchers are trying to figure out how to get anti-cancer drugs to the tumors they treat. One idea is to use “ferries” made from modified bacteria to get the drugs to the tumors through the bloodstream. Researchers at ETH Zurich have now figured out how to control some bacteria so they can get through the wall of a blood vessel and into tumor tissue.

The researchers at ETH Zurich, led by Simone Schürle, Professor of Responsive Biomedical Systems, chose to test bacteria with iron oxide particles that make them magnetic. Magnetospirillum bacteria respond to magnetic fields and can be moved by magnets outside of the bacteria.

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Simone Schürle and her colleagues have shown in cell cultures and on mice that putting a rotating magnetic field around a tumor makes it easier for bacteria to cross the vascular wall around the cancerous growth. The bacteria move forward in a circle at the vascular wall because of the rotating magnetic field.

To better understand how the mechanism to cross the wall of the vessel works, we need a closer look: The blood vessel wall is made up of a layer of cells that act as a barrier between the bloodstream and the tumor tissue, which has many tiny blood vessels running through it. Some molecules can get through the vessel wall because there are small gaps between these cells. The cells of the vessel wall control how big these spaces between cells are, and they can be temporarily big enough to let even bacteria pass through the vessel wall.

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Propulsion and Probability

ETH Zurich researchers used tests and computer simulations to prove that rotating magnetic fields push microorganisms for three reasons. First, spinning magnetic fields are ten times stronger than static ones, and the latter sets the direction, but the bacteria move.

The second and most important reason is that the spinning magnetic field propels germs along the vascular wall, making them more prone to meet vessel wall cell gaps than other propulsion kinds. 

Third, microorganisms don’t need imaging. Once over the tumor, the magnetic field must not be altered.

Bacterial Therapy for Cancer

Bacteria can help fight cancer in two ways. The other method, almost 100 years old, uses bacteria’s natural ability to harm tumor cells. Multiple mechanisms may be involved. In any event, microorganisms trigger immune system cells that kill the tumor.

E. coli bacteria’s anti-tumor effects are being studied in several studies. Synthetic biology can change germs to improve their therapeutic impact, eliminate side effects, and make them safer.

Still, if we want to use the natural properties of bacteria to treat cancer, we need to figure out how to get these bacteria to the tumor properly. You can inject the bacteria directly into tumors close to the body’s surface, but you can’t do this with tumors deep inside the body. Professor Schürle’s micro robotic control comes into play here. She says, “We think we can use our engineering approach to improve bacterial cancer therapy.”

The E. coli used in the cancer studies isn’t magnetic, so a magnetic field can’t move it or make it do what you want. In general, bacteria do not respond to magnetic fields very often, and one of the few types of bacteria that can do this is Magnetospirillum.

Schürle wants to make the E. coli bacteria magnetic so they can also stick to metal. This could make it possible to use a magnetic field to control bacteria used in medicine that don’t have magnetism.


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Hi! I'm Sofia, a Tourism and Hospitality Management graduate. I am currently the Senior Editor at ManilaShaker. I write current news events and respond to your technology-related FAQs.

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