How this 50-year-old NASA material could kill cancer


(quiet electronic music) – [Narrator] This bizarre
goo is called ferrofluid. And it really is the
stuff of science fiction. It was created at NASA as a way
to move fuel in outer space. And someday soon, it may be used to pilot medicine through your body. Today, well its uses are
a little more mundane. But it certainly looks good on video. – They have these spikes that come out when a magnetic field is applied and they kind of look like
alien structures (laughs). – [Narrator] Thomas
Webster is the director of the Nanomedicine Laboratory
at Northeastern University. And he’ll be our guide through the wonders of this future goo. Ferrofluid is made of
three main ingredients: magnetic nanoparticles like
iron oxide, a special coating that keeps these particles
from clumping together, and a water-based or oil-based liquid. What makes ferrofluid magical is that you can use a simple
magnet to move it around from a distance without
using pumps or wires. – So it is attractive for space or other, you know, deep sea environments. Environments that you can’t
touch or you can’t get close to. – [Narrator] The first
ferrofluid was invented by a NASA engineer named Steve
Papell in the early 1960s. His idea was that if you add
these magnetic nanoparticles to fuel, you can move it
around in zero gravity with a magnetic field. That didn’t really pan out, but since then ferrofluids have been used far and wide, in less sci-fi settings. You can find ferrofluids in hard drives because around a magnet,
ferrofluid almost becomes like a solid, like a
glue that seals things. In skateboards, ferrofluids
are found in wheels to reduce friction, and in speakers the material buffers vibrations, enhancing the sound.
(bass guitar purrs) But the future of
biomedicine is where things get really exciting. Because the particles inside
ferrofluid are so tiny, they can seep inside cells,
including cancer cells. – [Thomas] If you can
get a magnetic particle to go into a cancer cell, and
you apply a magnetic field, then these materials can heat up, and they can kill the cancer cell. Whereas a normal cell, a healthy cell, does not die as quickly when
that temperature increases. – [Narrator] And, there’s
another advantage. – Many conventional drugs that
are used in cancer treatment will kill the cancer cells
on the outside of a tumor, but if you can direct your magnetic field and focus high magnetic power
at the center of the tumor, you can now get the ferrofluid
to go in and kill the inside, and you have to kill the inside of a tumor or else it’ll just grow back. – [Narrator] The applications
are especially exciting for brain disease, because
ferrofluids could help a cell, rather than destroy it. – [Thomas] In neural diseases, sometimes the neurons fail to
connect with each other. We’ve seen in our studies that a ferrofluid can help that connection. – [Narrator] If ferrofluids
can help neurons communicate better, they could help people recover from a stroke or cope
with Alzheimer’s disease. – You know, and that’s very
exciting to think about, because our treatments are even worse for problems in the brain right now than for cancer or for infections. – [Narrator] Webster and his team have tested ferrofluids mostly in mice. They still need to be proven
safe enough for human trials. And there’s still a lot we don’t know. What happens if the nanoparticles end up in organs that we’re not targeting? Webster says more research is needed, as well as more interest
from medical companies. – We really have to get
industry involved, right? We at universities could
spend our lifetimes studying these things, but if
we don’t get industry excited, it’ll just be another material that had a lot of hype and fails. – [Narrator] In the meantime,
we’ll just have to settle for hypnotizing YouTube videos, and daydreams about what comes next. (quiet electronic tones) Hey everyone, thanks for watching. Just a heads up that ferrofluid is actually pretty messy stuff, so if you decide to play
with it on your own, just be prepared with some
gloves, some eye protection, and clothing that you
won’t mind getting dirty. Also, there are a lot of shots that didn’t make it into this video, and we’ve posted them on the link below and in the community tab on our new Verge Science YouTube channel, which you should subscribe to.