Dr. Prem Vaishnava is working on a new technique to treat ocular cancer.

Kettering, University of Michigan researchers partner to transform ocular cancer treatment

The treatment uses magnetic nanoparticles and magnetic microbubbles to specifically target Chorodial Melanoma and Retinoblastoma – both cancers of the eye.

A newfound partnership between Dr. Prem Vaishnava, professor of Physics at Kettering University, and Dr. Hakan Demirci at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center is attempting to forever change the treatment of ocular cancer in the United States through a targeted and precise technique that has proven to mitigate the disease without the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

“We are confident our technique would work because we have results of preliminary testing in a petri dish,” Vaishnava said. “We have documented proof that our procedure would kill cancer cells without using chemotherapy and/or radiation.”

The treatment uses magnetic nanoparticles and magnetic microbubbles to specifically target Chorodial Melanoma and Retinoblastoma – both cancers of the eye. This technique is currently being used to treat cancer in humans in Europe but has not yet been approved in the United States.

 “The science is there and there’s proof that it works. Phase I and Phase II trials have been conducted successfully using magnetic nanoparticles in animals in the United States,” Vaishnava said.

How It Works

Demirci is an oncology specialist at the Kellogg Eye Center in Ann Arbor. He reached out to Vaishnava to express his interest in using magnetic nanoparticles and hyperthermia to treat eye cancer. In a simple experiment, retinoblastoma cancer cells were mixed with magnetic nanoparticles in a petri dish and the mixture was exposed to an alternating magnetic field of frequency 350 kHz. The magnetic nanoparticles produced heat which is sufficient to kill cancer cells and the healthy cells remain unharmed.

In several instances heat is also provided by microware. Vaishnava explains that this treatment can be a bit “nasty” because an antenna is needed to be placed underneath the skin near the eye ball to heat the tumor. The procedure burns the skin and tissues during the installation of the antenna. Magnetic nanoparticles do not have such side effects.

Magnetic nanoparticles are iron oxide molecules that are suspended in a solution and can be injected into the body or directly into tumor without any harm. Once injected, particles disperse randomly, however, what Vaishnava has determined that if a magnet is positioned around the region where the cancer is located in the eye, the magnetic nanoparticles will be attracted to that site. Once they are concentrated around the the cancer site, a magnetic field can be applied which will cause the nanoparticles to oscillate or “dance” giving off heat and killing cancer cells.

Using this exact principle, Vaishnava and his research team (Professor Ron Kumon and students Nathaniel Mosher and Emily Perkins) have expanded on this technique by attaching anti-cancer drugs to the magnetic nanoparticles. Once the magnetic nanoparticles reach the cancer site, the drugs are released right on to the cancer site in the eye.

“There are so many aspects to it,” Vaishnava said. “Although the principle looks very simple, when you start using it, there are so many challenges.”

Going one step further, Vaishnava has plans to use “microbubbles” that are 1,000 times bigger than magnetic nanoparticles. Each “microbubble” is surrounded by magnetic nanoparticles and can burst with ultrasound to unleash a large concentrated amount of medication and nanoparticles at the cancer site. 

“We took retinoblastoma cancer cells and mixed them with magnetic nanoparticles in a petri dish, not even a microbubble, and we heated them at 42 degrees Celsius for three minutes and were surprised with the results - we killed 90 percent of the cancer cells.”

Next Steps

Vaishnava in partnership with Demirci at the Kellogg Eye Center is seeking funding for Phase II trial which will involve treating mice with ocular cancers. In the future, Phase III trial will involve humans.

“We are really excited because not only can we heat and kill cancer cells but we can deliver the drugs,” Vaishnava said. “Our procedure is a combination of limited chemotherapy and hyperthermia.”

What is the greatest benefit of magnetic nanoparticle treatment? There are no side effects.

“Because this is just heat, for human beings, they might feel some sensation of warmth at the site of the tumor,” Vaishnava said.

Despite the concentrated and precise nature of the treatment, Vaishnava suggests that magnetic nanoparticle treatment will be most effective when combined with traditional forms of therapies such as radiation and chemotherapy in order to ensure that cancer cells aren’t lingering in other parts of the body. A tandem approach to treatment can also have complementary results.

“There are some tumors which are resistant to radiation and chemotherapy. This is because of their hypoxic nature.” Vaishnava said. “By heating the tumor, we can increase the profusion rate increasing the amount of oxygen in the tumor.  Both radiation and chemotherapy have a greater impact when there’s rich oxygenated blood flow to the cancer site.”

For now, Vaishnava and his colleagues will continue to perfect the science and techniques as they proceed through the various phases before this technique receives widespread approval for use in the United States.

“There’s a great demand for this kind of work. This is a step forward in melanoma and retinoblastoma treatment,” Vaishnava said.