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Researchers from the MIRA research institute at the University of Twente, together with their research partners, have been awarded a €1.4 million grant to develop a new method of determining whether patients with breast cancer have developed secondary tumours. Instead of potentially dangerous radioactive particles, the new method uses harmless magnetic nanoparticles and an advanced ultrasensitive ‘metal detector'.
Around thirteen thousand women in the Netherlands are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. For a large proportion of these patients, a so-called sentinel node procedure is used to determine whether the cancer had spread. In this procedure radioactive particles are introduced into the body, so it can be seen whether the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes in the armpits; the place where any spreading of breast cancer always takes place first. However, the method has a number of drawbacks. The limited storage life of the radioactive particles creates a logistic problem, for example, which means that the procedure cannot be carried out at any place or time. Worldwide this is even the reason why only half of breast cancer patients can undergo the procedure. What is more, the radioactivity represents a health risk for both patients and medical personnel.
Advanced metal detector
Another method for tracing the spread of cancer cells is with the use of magnetic nanoparticles. These nanoparticles are introduced into the body, and can be traced using a magnetic detection system; essentially an advanced ‘metal detector'. However, existing detectors are not sensitive enough to measure the difference between the background noise and the signal of the nanoparticles.
180 degrees below zero
Researchers from the University of Twente will therefore be developing a more sensitive method for detecting the magnetic materials: a cryomagnetic detection system. By fitting the system with a compact sensor antenna, which is cooled to 180 degrees below zero, it is possible to greatly improve the signal-to-noise ratio.
The nanoparticles have already been used in clinical applications, for example as contrast material for MRI scans, so their efficacy and safety have already been demonstrated. The main advantage of using the nanoparticles, in contrast to radioactive particles, is that they basically have an unlimited storage life, and so they can be used at any place and time. They also do not present any health risk for patients or medical personnel.
The research into the possibilities of a cryomagnetic detection system is being carried out by the NeuroIMaging research group of the MIRA research institute at the University of Twente. Dr Bennie ten Haken is the project coordinator.
The University of Twente researchers are working in close collaboration with the university's spin-off business Kryoz Technologies BV, Panton BV, DKMS BV, Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre and the Medisch Spectrum Twente hospital. The total cost of the project will be around €3 million. €1.4 million of this total will be provided in grants from NL Agency and the Dutch provinces of Overijssel and Gelderland. The research project will last for four years. The researchers expect that by 2015 they will be able to show whether the method is truly suitable for clinical applications.
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Wiebe van der Veen
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