Deadly brain tumours could be heated up by MRI scanners until they die in groundbreaking treatment

Deadly brain tumours could be removed in just ten minutes with a groundbreaking new treatment which uses MRI scanners to heat up cancer cells until they die.

The new therapy, developed by University College London, involves injecting a tiny magnetic metal ‘seed’ into the bloodstream and directing it to the site of the cancer.

The scanner is then used to heat up the metal seed which causes the cells to die in the surrounding tissue. Not only does it quickly kill cancer cells, but it saves healthy cells from the damaging effects of invasive surgery or radiotherapy.

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The team at UCL has already proven it is effective in the brains of pigs and plans to move to human trials on patients with prostate cancer within the next two years with the hope it will be available for many cancers on the NHS within five years.

Launching the new technology at The Cheltenham Science Festival, Mark Lythgoe, professor of imaging at UCL, said: “The aim is to turn every MRI scanner in the world into a therapeutic device. At the moment it just take pictures.

“The simple idea is the patient goes into the MRI scanner, you locate a tumour in the brain or the prostate and then we implant a tiny magnetic particle, a little bit smaller than a grain of rice, to the site of the tumour.

“We can guide it with real precision avoiding any areas that we don’t want to go to, like the sensory motor-cortex in the brain, the area with memories.

“Once it’s in there we’re able to fire in a simple radio wave and these seeds heat up remarkably well, and kills all the cells around it. You then just guide the seed through the tumour, killing all the cells. And you can do it with real precision right up to the margins of the tumour so there is no tumour left. This is life-changing.”

The team believes the whole process could be automated, with the scanner quickly locating the tumour then ‘setting off on its own’ to kill the cancer without the need for specialist surgeons or radiographers.

And they are hoping to create ‘nano-scalpels’ where the seed is sharpened to act as a knife to cut the tumours away.

“You want to go for brain tumours that are really inaccessible where the surgeon has to plough through a ton of normal tissue to get to it. We can get through a tumour in ten minutes, added Prof Lythgoe.

“In two years we would hope to move into the first in man. It’s not a drug it’s a device so it makes things much quicker and easier.

“It will get rid of side effects. Neurosurgical procedures are expensive but if this can be done just off the end of a needle you remove the need for that surgeon.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body.

Most of the human body is made up of water molecules, which consist of hydrogen and oxygen atoms. At the centre of each hydrogen atom is proton particle, which acts like a tiny magnet and is sensitive to magnetic fields.

Usually the protons are all aligned, but the scanner sends out radio waves to knock them out of their positions. As they right themselves, they send out signals which reveal the type of tissue and exact location.


Scientist showing a glass slide that has a sample from a great tumour on it.

The new treatment uses the radio waves instead to move and heat the metal seeds.

While treatments such as radiotherapy and surgery can be effective, they often cause unwanted and debilitating side effects such as in the case of prostate cancer, incontinence and impotence

They also rely on the subjective skills of the radiologist and surgeon and can result in excess tissue being removed, which can lead to increased post-surgical problems for patients, or not enough being removed which can lead to cancer coming back.

It is the first therapy of it’s kind in the world and UCL has recently invested £13m to create the world’s first Centre for Image Guided Therapy and have recently bought an experimental MRI scanner.

Via The Telegraph