Alumni Update

Magnetometer probe created to better detect and treat cancer

Associate Professor Benjamin Thierry, Research Leader at the Future Industries Institute

Lead Engineer Dr Aidan Cousins holding the probe with UniSA Ventures CEO Dr Stephen Rodda and Associate Professor Benjamin Thierry. Pic: Keryn Stevens.

Lead Engineer Dr Aidan Cousins holding the probe with UniSA Ventures CEO Dr Stephen Rodda and Associate Professor Benjamin Thierry. Pic: Keryn Stevens.


Cutting-edge biomedical engineering created at UniSA is promising to deliver remarkable breakthroughs in the fight against cancer. Associate Research Professor Benjamin Thierry is developing innovative technologies designed to help doctors more accurately and speedily diagnose particular cancers, determine the cancer spread, and enable more personalised treatments for patients as a result.

One of these new tools created by Assoc Prof Thierry and research associate Aidan Cousins is the magnetometer probe. The patented magnetometer probe is designed to reliably identify the sentinel lymph node in patients diagnosed with solid tumour cancers, such as breast cancer and head and neck cancer.

For these cancers, the lymphatic system provides a customary path for the spread of cancer cells into surrounding lymph nodes before the cancer cells potentially progress throughout the body. The first node downstream from the cancer in the lymph circulatory system is known as the “sentinel” lymph node. The sentinel lymph node will be the first one to show evidence of cancer, and so it is vital that this node is correctly identified and checked for the presence of cancer cells.

Currently the most commonly used technique to locate the sentinel lymph node uses radioactive tracers. This works well for some cancers but can be quite inaccurate for other solid cancer types – e.g. gastro-intestinal, head and neck, and prostate.

“The lymphatic system is quite complex, and unlike in the case of breast cancer where the location of the sentinel lymph node is pretty well known, for other types of cancer the pattern of spreading is much more complex,” Assoc Prof Thierry says.

“Often these lymph nodes can be very close to the primary tumour, which means with the current radioactive tracer technology we cannot detect the nodes because they are too close and because the amount of tracer in the tumour acts as a kind of halo.

“In head and neck cancer, roughly 90% of the sentinel lymph node is usually between 20 to 30mm from the primary tumour so it is too close to detect them. The radioactive tracer technique is not going to work reliably in that case, which is quite a limitation.”

To counter this problem, Assoc Prof Thierry and his research team have developed a hand-held probe based on highly sensitive magnetic sensing components which is capable of detecting minute quantities of magnetic tracers in the lymphatic system. The magnetometer probe has the potential to considerably simplify lymph node procedures, cut costs to the health system, and open up new opportunities for cancers with complex lymphatic drainage, such as head and neck cancer. The magnetometer probe is designed to be used with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to detect the sentinel lymph node with pinpoint accuracy.

Assoc Prof Thierry predicts that by using this technology there will be a number of significant benefits for cancer patients, as more accurate prognosis would profoundly impact on their care. With the support of UniSA Ventures, the commercialization arm of the University of South Australia, and funding from TechinSA, Ferronova Ltd has been spun off to commercialize the technology and bring it to the clinic. In October 2016, Ferronova also received substantial investment from Powerhouse Ventures, a major IP investor based in New Zealand. This investment will accelerate the clinical validation of the technology, which is scheduled to start in 2017 in collaboration with the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

Another new technology Assoc Prof Thierry and his team are currently researching aims to provide superior detection of cancer cells hidden among healthy tissues and can be completed during an operation.

“Right now, when a cancer patient is undergoing treatment, a surgeon has to wait relatively lengthy lead times, often up to a few days, to get results of lymph node samples from the pathologists to get a measure of the spread of the cancer,” Assoc Prof Thierry says.

“This new technology has the potential to eliminate that lag time and to provide results within the time-frame of the surgery. We estimate that such reliable intraoperative testing during surgery, if validated clinically, could spare approximately 20 per cent of breast cancer patients a secondary surgery.

Assoc Prof Thierry says the research, which was published in the leading journal ACS Nano, has the potential to significantly improve surgical treatments for breast cancer, head and neck cancer, and gastrointestinal cancer, all of which develop secondary cancers via the spread of tumor cells to the regional lymph nodes.

Research and new bio-medical technologies are critical components to future breakthroughs in health care to make it better, cheaper, and more accessible to all. To support Assoc Prof Thierry’s research please visit:

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