Sperling Prostate Center

Can a Child’s Toy Cure Brain Cancer?

The bold tag line for University College London (UCL) is “Disruptive thinking since 1826.” Back in 1826, when this global university was founded, the phrase disruptive thinking did not even exist! Today, the term disruptive permeates the worlds of industry, businesses, technology and research. Not only do disruptive innovations alter the way these fields operate, they funnel change down to consumers, transforming their lives and lifestyles. For example, our own Center is a leader in Focal Laser Ablation (FLA), an innovation that “disrupts” the conventional whole-gland approach to treating prostate cancer, thus changing patient quality of life for the better.

Now there’s a very exciting innovation being developed by UCL’s Centre for Advanced Biomedical Engineering (CABI). Their website informs us that “CABI is one of the most advanced biomedical imaging facilities in the world, and its pioneering capabilities provide imaging solutions to meet today’s medical challenges.” CABI’s latest innovation is called minimally invasive image-guided ablation or MINIMA. It relies on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) not only for treatment planning and guidance, but the MRI equipment can also generate magnetic propulsion gradients to physically direct a very small magnetic needle-shaped thermoseed through soft tissue into a cancerous tumor. Once in place, the magnetic energy can heat the iron alloy in the seed to a temperature lethal enough to kill cancer cells.

The concept of steering tiny bits of iron into place is hardly new or far-fetched. If you’re old enough, you may recall a kiddie toy called Wooly Willy. It was invented in 1955 by Jim Herzog used magnetic iron dust from grinding magnets to design magnetic faces. Using a small, pencil-shaped magnet to pick up dust through a clear plastic window, the clump of “wooly” looking dust was steered to a location over a cartoon face, then “dropped” into place by simply lifting the magnetic pencil away. Voila! Facial hair!


It was fun to be in control of creating unique new faces for Willy. While it’s unlikely that this toy played the role of Muse to inspire the MINIMA team of scientists, the notion is very similar. Their February, 2022 paper published in Advanced Science articulates in more technical language that MINIMA “uses magnetic resonance navigation (MRN) to steer a therapeutic thermoseed through tissue, before delivering localized cell death via thermoablation.”[i] It is highly targeted and precise, demonstrated by their proof-of-concept animal studies with mice.

The team points out that there are many new targeted therapies—such as FLA—that are already being used to treat cancer, but which tend to be “specific to either an organ or disease and, therefore, have had little opportunity to be applied more widely across conditions.”[ii] MINIMA, using the basic principle
of a vintage child’s toy, has the potential to be applied against cancers from deadly brain cancer to focal prostate cancer.

This versatility is due to MINIMA’s three basic components: imaging, navigation, and therapy. These combined characteristics allow both diagnosis and treatment in the same disruptive technology:

  • MRI scans allow planning of the least invasive pathway from entry in the body to target
  • Correct navigation of the thermoseed to its target is facilitated by constant imaging feedback
  • Once placed, an alternating magnetic field is applied to the thermoseed in order to achieve lethal heat for localized cell destruction
  • Subsequent relocations of the thermoseed allows heating at multiple locations to obtain regional ablation
  • Navigation is again used to remove the thermoseed, and MRI scanning confirms treatment success.

There is an abundance of scientific description in the journal article itself, comprising biology, physics, and procedural details. For interested readers, the open access article is available here. One final note: Our esteemed UCL urology professor colleague, Mark Emberton, is listed as a co-author. We are willing to bet he’s already thinking how this might be applied for focal prostate cancer treatment.

There is no greater medical challenge than ending cancer. Although a cancer-free world lies somewhere in the distant future, a giant step toward that day is defeating one-by-one the cancer of each individual, regardless of where it exists in that person’s body. Just as Wooly Willy could satisfy each child’s unique imagination, MINIMA may offer the potential to heal each patient’s unique cancer.

NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing pelvic pain, or have any other health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.

[i] Baker RR, Payne C, Yu Y, Mohseni M et al. Image-Guided Magnetic Thermoseed Navigation and Tumor Ablation Using a Magnetic Resonance Imaging System. Adv Sci (Weinh). 2022 Feb 2:e2105333.
[ii] Ibid.


About Dr. Dan Sperling

Dan Sperling, MD, DABR, is a board certified radiologist who is globally recognized as a leader in multiparametric MRI for the detection and diagnosis of a range of disease conditions. As Medical Director of the Sperling Prostate Center, Sperling Medical Group and Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, he and his team are on the leading edge of significant change in medical practice. He is the co-author of the new patient book Redefining Prostate Cancer, and is a contributing author on over 25 published studies. For more information, contact the Sperling Prostate Center.

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