Researchers at MIT’s research center in Singapore have developed a new microfluidic device that can test the effects of electric fields on cancer cells. This device, about the size of a U.S. dollar coin and made from PDMS, a gel-like polymer, is designed to help scientists narrow in on safe ranges of electric fields to noninvasively treat breast, lung, and other forms of cancer.
The researchers noticed that a range of low-intensity, middle-frequency electric fields effectively stopped breast and lung cancer cells from growing and spreading, while having no adverse effect on neighboring healthy cells.
This comes on the heels of scientists experimenting with the use of electric fields to treat malignant cells, in an alternative cancer treatment called tumor treating field, or TTF, over the past decade. The therapy stems from the interaction between key cellular structures in tumors, and an external electric field.
An electric field is a field of forces that act on objects that have an electric charge. An electric field can also influence the alignment of polar molecules in tumor cells, such as microtubules. Normally, these molecules are crucial for cell division, which, when it goes into overdrive, leads to tumor growth. When microtubules line up end to end to form a mitotic spindle, the cell’s genetic material attaches to the spindle fibers, pulling and splitting the cell into two cells.
In the past, scientists have observed that these charged molecules respond to a low-frequency electric field, between 100 and 300 kilohertz and with an intensity as strong as the field strength of a mixer or toaster. Instead of forming mitotic spindles, the microtubule alignment is disrupted in such a way that it prevents cell division and tumor growth.
This research was supported, in part, by the National Research Foundation of Singapore through the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology BioSystems and Micromechanics interdisciplinary research group.