Biomagnetics developed for use in new breast cancer tests

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29 February 2008

A team from UCL has developed a new medical device which will make the early detection of breast cancer more cost effective and easier to administer. The team - which won a prestigious Brian Mercer Feasibility Award from the Royal Society yesterday - plans to use magnetic nanoparticles and an extremely sensitive magnetometer called the ‘HistoMag’ to detect cancerous cells in samples of breast tissue.

“Each year 35,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK and the testing programme is a massive undertaking,” says Professor Quentin Pankhurst of the London Centre for Nanotechnology and the UCL Department of Physics & Astronomy. “Until now, pathologists had to stain tissue samples with brown dyes to help them determine whether they are normal or cancerous. In terms of streamlining the process, the main problem is that all of the results are open to interpretation and each test has to be individually checked by a specialist.

Figure 1: (a) Schematic of the HistoMag magnetic microscope. The arrow points to a glass slide for mounting biopsy tissue.

  “At UCL we’ve been working in the relatively new area of biomagnetics to develop a new technique which provides more quantitative and reliable results, whilst also enabling pathologists to identify abnormal tissue sections much more quickly.

“Cancerous cells have a protein on their surface called HER2. We use a solution of HER2 antibodies, tagged with magnetic nanoparticles, to stain the tissue sample. Using the HistoMag we can detect the quantity of tagged antibodies which attach themselves to the HER2 protein, which in turn provides us with an accurate picture of the spread of cancerous cells.”

By automating the detection and quantification of cancerous cells HistoMag will not only ease the pressure on pathologists, but also help to identify the 15-30% of patients who are likely to benefit from treatment with the drug Herceptin. At a cost of £30,000 per patient per annum it is essential that the treatment is targeted at women who will respond positively to the treatment.

The team, led by Professor Pankhurst and LCN systems engineer Simon Hattersley, works closely with Professor Kai Stoeber and Dr Keith Miller of the UCL Department of Pathology. They are one of only seven groups to receive a Brian Mercer Feasibility Award from the Royal Society this year. The £25,000 award will enable the team to re-engineer the HistoMag, increasing its sensitivity before it goes on to clinical trials. Their goal is to make the device generally available to pathologists in 2010. 

The Royal Society Brian Mercer Awards were announced in a ceremony on the 28th February 2008. More information on this and other award schemes may be found on the Royal Society website.


Figure 2: Cross-section through the long axis of the glass slide, showing the bobbins for the applied magnetic field and the pick-up coils. Figure 3: Photograph of the pick-up coils, which contain 10 turns each, have an inner diameter of 1.0 mm, and an outer diameter of 2.0 mm. Figure 4: Data recorded on a test sample comprising 1 μg of iron per square mm, illustrating the sensitivity (ca. 10 ng per sq. mm) and spatial resolution (ca. 1 mm) of the existing prototype. Figures 2, 3 and 4 from left to right below.


Notes for editors

1. About the London Centre for Nanotechnology

The London Centre for Nanotechnology is an interdisciplinary joint enterprise between University College London and Imperial College London. In bringing together world-class infrastructure and leading nanotechnology research activities, the Centre aims to attain the critical mass to compete with the best facilities abroad. Research programmes are aligned to three key areas, namely Planet Care, Healthcare and Information Technology and bridge together biomedical, physical and engineering sciences. Website:

2. About University College London

Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender, and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine. In the government's most recent Research Assessment Exercise, 59 UCL departments achieved top ratings of 5* and 5, indicating research quality of international excellence.

UCL is in the top ten world universities in the 2007 THES-QS World University Rankings, and the fourth-ranked UK university in the 2007 league table of the top 500 world universities produced by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University. UCL alumni include Marie Stopes, Jonathan Dimbleby, Lord Woolf, Alexander Graham Bell, and members of the band Coldplay. Website:

3. The Royal Society promotes collaboration between science and industry through a range of initiatives including science policy studies, networking events, funding schemes, and courses to help scientists develop the commercial potential of their research. The Society’s major innovation awards are supported by a generous bequest by the late Dr Brian Mercer OBE FRS, and provide funding to test the viability of an idea or concept though to near-market commercialisation ensure sustainability. Website: