Researchers at Harvard recently discovered a way to levitate single cancer cells with magnets. Aside from just being cool, the levitation process allows scientists to differentiate between different kinds of cancer cells, which makes the diagnosis of many different diseases easier.
The researchers are associated with the George Whitesides Research Group. George Whitesides is the current Woodford L. and Ann A. Flowers University Professor, a professorship supported by a fund set up by J. Christopher Flowers in honor of his parents in 2006.
The study involved using magnets to levitate individual cells—a method that’s been used before, but never to levitate something so small (previous subjects include frogs and strawberries). The cells are first soaked in a magnetic solution, then put between two magnets. Based on the density of the cells, they levitate higher or lower than the cells around them, making it easier to determine the nature of each individual cell.
This study looked specifically at cancer cells, namely lung cancer, breast cancer, and others.
In addition to the levitation process, researchers were able to see single cells die, noting how their density changed in the process. This could be a new way for scientists to determine how individual cells react to different situations—a great way to test new drugs and to diagnose different diseases.
While the study is a breakthrough, it also brings to light some weaknesses with the method. For one thing, it’s difficult to determine if the magnetic solution affects the density of the cells. It’s also possible that the process of putting the cells between two magnets changes certain properties, which affects the validity of the results.
Still, if the technique can be refined and put into general practice, it could make it easier to process multiple cells at once, giving scientists a quicker, more efficient way to diagnose diseases.
“The nice thing about mag lev is it’s pretty simple to do,” said Whitesides in an interview with New Scientist. “Now what has to be done is the hard work that comes with any new analytical method.”