A childhood fascination with magnetism is about to translate into a significant advance in the treatment of breast cancer, which will at the same time improve safety and reduce costs.
“As a child, playing with iron filings, I was enthralled to be able move them around with a magnet without touching them,” Quentin Pankhurst, professor of physics at University College London, recalls. Many years and a few detours later, he has turned his fascination with magnetism into a technology that is poised to improve the treatment of breast cancer. The company he founded, Endomagnetics, is the winner in the Life Sciences category of the Science|Business ACES Awards 2012.
The aim of Endomagnetics’ technology is to replace the unstable radioactive isotopes that are now used to assess if a breast cancer has spread beyond the primary tumour, with a safer, cheaper and easier to use magnetic tracer.
Such assessment is important, because if a tumour has not spread, its surgical removal and a short course of radiation is sufficient to bring about a cure. But if cancer cells have broken off from the primary tumour and moved into the surrounding lymph nodes, a patient will need more drastic radiotherapy and/or chemotherapy.
The current test involves injecting a radioisotope into the site of the primary tumour and tracing this to find the closest lymph node. This node, called the sentinel node, can then be removed at the same time as the tumour. If the subsequent analysis indicates the node is cancerous, radio- and chemotherapy can be administered. If not, the patient is spared debilitating, unnecessary and expensive treatment.
Although radioactive tracing has been shown to improve survival outcomes, only one in six of women diagnosed with breast cancer each year are assessed in this way, according to Pankhurst. “The reason is that it relies on hard-to-handle radioisotopes,” Pankhurst told Science|Business. In the absence of sentinel node analysis the tendency is play safe and administer radio- and chemotherapy ‘just in case’.
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In 1986 – before the science of the very small was officially labelled nanotechnology –Pankhurst developed magnetic nanoparticles during his PhD research at Liverpool University. An academic career followed and it was not until 2004 that he applied to the UK Department of Trade and Industry (now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) for a grant to help commercialise the technology.
“We got £150,000 to work on applying magnetic particles to trace cancer in the body. But there was a caveat: we received £10,000 upfront over three months to find out if we had freedom to operate, and to come back with a specific proposal,” Pankhurst said.
Strong intellectual property
This led to endless discussions with clinicians to nail down the first application around which to commercialise the technology, finally leading to the selection of sentinel node detection in breast cancer. Endomagnetics was also able to establish there were no blocking patents and establish a strong intellectual property position.
A subsequent 60-patient trial found that Endomagnetics’ system, which uses a hand-held probe for tracking the whereabouts of magnetic nanoparticles injected at the site of the primary tumour after its removal, is as efficient as radioisotope tracing in pinpointing the sentinel node. Endomagnetics has received CE marking for its test and has raised £2.55 million to launch the product this year. The technology is also applicable to evaluating if other types of solid tumour have spread.
“We are also in discussions with the FDA [the US regulator]. We are financed for launch and looking for partners,” said Pankhurst, who is Endomagnetics chief technology officer. “Our aim is to globalise and democratise access to the best standard of care for breast cancer and other cancers.”