Tiny Weapons in the Fight against Brain Tumors | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 07.05.2002
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Tiny Weapons in the Fight against Brain Tumors

If scientists in Berlin have their way, cancerous brain tumors could be a thing of the past. Their new weapon? Particles tinier than a wisp of smoke.


Cancerous brain tumors might just have met their match in nanoparticles.

Malignant tumors located deep inside the brain present a major challenge for surgeons. They are often difficult or impossible to reach. Even if they can be removed through surgery without damaging surrounding tissue, in more than 90 percent of cases they grow back in the same place.

But researchers at the Charité University Hospital in Berlin are developing a new weapon that can seek out cancer cells in the brain and kill them without harming the surrounding region.

Scalpels, forget it—too bulky and clumsy. This new, ultra-precise tool is made up of nanoparticles of iron oxide.

Nanoparticles are extremely tiny particles with dimensions less than 100 nanometers (nm). A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. To get an idea of a size that small, a human hair is about 50 000 nm in diameter, while a smoke particle is about 1 000 nm in diameter.

Tiny Heating Coils

The concept is simple—scientists basically "boil" the cancer cells to death, without boiling the rest of the brain at the same time.

They do this by adding the iron oxide nanoparticles to cell cultures, then "loading up" the cancerous tumor cells with the cultures. Sounds difficult, but using devices called "stereotactic rings", neuroscientists can easily introduce material in the brain with great precision, even in hard-to-reach areas.

The scientists have made the the particles especially tempting to cancer cells by surrounding them with a sugar-like coating. The malignant cells devour the particles and pass them along when they divide. Thanks to the cancer cells' voracious appetites, before long the particles have spread throughout the cancerous tissue.

The patient's head is then exposed to an alternating magnetic field. That makes the nanoparticles acts like tiny heating coils, warming them up to around 43 degrees Celsius. They literally cook the tumor from the inside and kill it. The healthy part of the brain around the tumor retains its normal temperature and remains unharmed.

Given, the above-mentioned patients have been laboratory rats and Berlin researchers aren't set to start their first clinical trial for a few months yet. But if they can reproduce in human heads what they've done so far in rodent skulls, inoperable brain tumors could become a thing of the past.