Scientists have created magnets that trigger tumors to 'self-destruct' in a breakthrough that could revolutionize cancer therapy.  

Researchers in South Korea have developed a method that uses a magnetic field to flip a "self-destruct" switch in tumors in both living fish and laboratory cancer cells. Researchers from the latest study, published in the journal Nature Materials, plan on testing the new technique on a variety of other cancers to see if it can destroy other tumors.

Programmed cell death, or apoptosis, is a process in which the body rids itself of old, faulty or infected cells, and according to researchers, the cell-death process is often blocked, which often renders some drugs to be ineffective and tumor cells to continue to develop and spread uncontrollably throughout the body.

In the latest study, researchers developed a new magnetic therapy that involves creating tiny iron oxide nanoparticles attached to antibodies or proteins produced by the body's immune system when it detects harmful foreign substances.

Researchers explain that these iron nanoparticles bind to the molecules on tumor cells, and when the magnetic field is activated, the molecules bunch together, which automatically triggers the death signal, leading the cancer to self-destruct. Researchers said that the new treatment may one day lead to new targeted therapies that could destroy tumor cells that are resistant to the usual process of cell death.

Researchers at Yonsei University in Seoul placed bowel cancer cells exposed to nanoparticles in between two magnets and found that more than half of the exposed cells were destroyed once the magnets were activated, whereas no untreated cells were affected.

Researchers noted while the new magnetic treatment effectively killed cancer cells in zebra fish in another experiment, magnetically-induced apoptosis therapy caused the animals to develop abnormal tails.

"We have demonstrated that apoptosis signaling can be turned on in-vitro (in the laboratory) and in a zebra fish in-vivo (living) model by using a magnetic switch. Our magnetic switch may be broadly applicable to any type of surface membrane receptors that exhibit cellular functions on clustering," lead researcher Professor Jinwoo Cheon and colleagues wrote in the study.

Scientists noted that their research is still in its preliminary stages and that far more work is needed to be done to see if the process can be refined and eventually tested on people.

"This is fascinating but extremely preliminary research," said Henry Scowcroft, at Cancer Research UK's science information manager, according to Daily Mail.  "These Korean researchers have developed an antibody-based molecule that, when activated by a magnetic field, can cause cancer cells to die in highly artificial laboratory conditions and animal models."

"There's a long way to go before it's ready to test in humans, but research like this shows just how ingenious scientists around the world are becoming in the quest to beat cancer," he added.