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'Nano tweezers' could help to diagnose and treat cancer

Published: 26th March, 2019 at 00:00
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Magnetic tweezers, consisting of an iron bead in a finely-tuned magnetic field, can probe the inside of cells.

You won’t find these in your bathroom cabinet: Researchers at the University of Toronto have developed ‘nano tweezers’ that can probe the inside of cancer cells more deeply than ever before.


The miniscule device, developed by a team led by Professor Yu Sun, is referred to as a set of magnetic tweezers because of how precisely it can be manipulated. It consists of a tiny bead of iron, 100 times thinner than a human hair, which can be moved into position by a finely-controlled magnetic field.

Once the bead has been placed among a sample of living cancer cells it quickly becomes absorbed inside the membrane. From here, it can be used to study the cell’s internal structure in unprecedented detail without damaging the cell or its contents. Optical tweezers, which won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2018, have previously been used to study cells, but this technology uses lasers which can start to damage the cell.

The nano tweezers are already delivering the goods. While recently exploring bladder cancer cells, the researchers found that the nucleus is not spherical, but roughly the shape of a rugby ball, which could help future researchers find new ways of identifying and diagnosing cancer.

There are also many other exciting applications that could be developed in the future, Sun says. “You could imagine bringing in whole swarms of these nanobots, and using them to either starve a tumour by blocking the blood vessels into the tumour, or destroy it directly by mechanical ablation,” he said.

'Tumour monorail' on the fast track for human trials © Alamy'Tumour monorail' on the fast track for human trials © Alamy


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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.


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