Magnetic bacteria could one day be used to target tumours and treat cancer patients, according to a new study by University of Edinburgh scientists.
The research, involving scientists from the Schools of Biological Sciences, Chemistry and GeoSciences that worked in collaboration with other groups from England and France, has been published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
It is thought that tiny magnets found within naturally-occurring magnetic bacteria could be used to target tumours in the body. Heat from an external magnetic field could be used to destroy the cancerous tissue, or to bring about the release of anti-cancer drugs attached to the so-called nanomagnets.
The uniform structure of these naturally occurring nanomagnets makes them potentially more suitable for medical applications than man-made nanomagnets.
The crux of this latest research the newly-developed ability to control the magnetic properties of the bacteria. Using selected strains of the bacterium Magnetospirillum, the scientists have succeeded in 'cobalt-doping' the bacterial cells, making the bio-nanomagnets stronger and more controllable.
The researchers concluded that their findings “provide an important advance in designing biologically synthesised nanoparticles with useful highly tuned magnetic properties.”
It is thought these enhanced bio-nanomagnets might also have potential applications in electronic devices and high-density data storage devices.
Study leader, Dr Sarah Staniland, of the School of Biological Sciences, told the BBC: “For nanoparticles to be used in medicine you need them to be a very uniform size and shape and bacteria are very good for that.
“This increases the scope for their use in [fighting] cancer.
“You would move them with a normal magnetic field, then heat them with the opposing field.”
Liz Baker, Science Information Officer for Cancer Research UK, said: “Targeting treatments specifically to cancer cells is an exciting area of research, but in this case work is still at a very early stage.
“It will be interesting to see if further research into nanomagnets will provide us with new and effective anti-cancer therapy.”