Early detection improves chances of success in cancer treatment. Edward Flynn and fellow researchers at the UNM Cancer Center are using nanotechnology to detect breast cancer cells earlier and more effectively than conventional methods like mammograms.

The new technology may allow doctors to detect breast cancer up to two and a half years earlier than conventional screening methods, as well as detecting smaller tumors at earlier stages of the disease. The project was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal.

Nanotechnology researchers study the manipulation of particles on the scale of the nanometer, one billionth of a meter. The width of a single hair is 100,000 nanometers.

Researchers in the breast cancer study attach nanoparticles of iron oxide to antibodies, a technique developed with researchers at the UNM Health Sciences Center. The antibodies used recognize and bind to only the HER-2 receptor in cancer cells. "There are no false positives," Flynn said.

The patient is placed between magnetic coils that generate a small magnetic field and cause the nanoparticles to align in one direction. When the magnetic field is removed, the nanoparticles emit an electromagnetic signal that can be measured by sensitive magnetic sensors known as SQUID to indicate how many magnetic particles, and therefore how many cancer cells, are present, and where in the breast they are located. Flynn said the technique is 1,000 times more sensitive than a mammogram.

Scarring and implants, which can interfere with the accuracy of mammograms, are no problem for SQUID sensors. "Tissue and bone are transparent to the magnetic fields we measure," Flynn said.

This method eliminates or reduces the risks associated with conventional methods of breast cancer detection. Mammograms and PET scans expose patients to radiation, and MRIs to high magnetic fields. SQUID sensors, on the other hand, uses no radiation and extremely low magnetic fields.

Flynn worked on brain research using SQUID at Los Alamos National Laboratory. After retiring from Los Alamos, personal circumstances led him to seek new applications of the technology.

"My wife had breast cancer, and I started to look into how I could use this technology for the brain to find cancer," he said.

By detecting smaller tumors at earlier stages of the illness, the SQUID technology could improve the prognosis for breast cancer patients. While challenges remain in the refinement of the technology for use in clinical settings, Flynn and his team have already demonstrated how SQUID sensors can be used to assess the progress of leukemia patients by counting cancer cells before and after chemotherapy. Once the technology is refined for its current targets, for example HER-2 receptors in breast cancer, the team will work to identify more cancer-specific receptors to expand the technology's utility and increase the range of breast cancers that can be detected.

Flynn is adjunct professor of physics, member of Women's Cancers Research Program at the UNM Cancer Center, founding director of the MIND Research Network, senior advisor to the users group at the Center for Integrative Nanotechnology and chief executive of Senior Scientific, a nanomedicine firm.

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