Stanford promotes a magnetized wire ‘to detect cancer in people.’ What you need to know

Michael Joyce is a writer-producer with and tweets as @mlmjoyce

This is quite the unjustified headline from a Stanford University School of Medicine news release:

‘Magnetized wire could be used to detect cancer in people’

Stanford claims that antibody-coated, magnetic nanoparticles can be engineered to bind with circulating cancer tumor cells (CTCs). A magnetized wire, introduced via a catheter into a peripheral blood vessel, can then bind to those magnetized CTCs and — according to the Stanford research team — capture many more cancer cells than a standard blood draw.

Only later in the news release do we learn two critical limitations of the research, published today in Nature Biomedical Engineering:

  • “The technique has only been used in pigs so far.”
  • The researchers “have yet to try out the wire in people as they still have to file for approval from the Food and Drug Administration.”

Regardless, the news release proffers “the technique could even help doctors evaluate a patient’s response to particular cancer treatments … perhaps, most intriguingly, the magnetic wire may even stand to evolve into a treatment itself.”

Compelling as that possibility may be, it’s premature to project such human applications from this proof-of-concept study in pigs. The news release highlights that the technique “attracts from 10-80 times more tumor cells than current blood-based cancer-detection methods, making it a potent tool to catch the disease earlier.” That’s in an animal model. Just how it would work in a human with cancer is unknown.

The speculative statements–which were bolstered by some similarly-speculative comments by the lead author himself–also made it into at least two news stories.

  • The Daily Mail said “scientists have developed a magnetic wire that could help doctors detect cancer before patients show symptoms.”
  • UPI, meanwhile, included speculation about the technology’s potential for other diseases. “It could be useful in any other disease in which there are cells or molecules of interest in the blood,” a researcher was quoted as saying.

Not a new idea

There are two other considerations to keep in mind. First, this isn’t a novel research approach. It’s been investigated for at least a decade.

Second–although the news release mentions three funding sources–it fails to mention that five of the 20 study authors have filed for patent protection for the MagWIRE technology used in this study.

Given these caveats, the most appropriate and accurate headline would have been to replace “people” with “pigs” … but who would have clicked on that?

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