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Giant Magnet Will Zoom In On Potential Cancer Causes, Says St. Jude

Katie Riordan


St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is well known for its one-of-a-kind pediatric cancer research. Now, it has a one-of-a-kind tool that scientists say gives them the world’s clearest picture of cells on an atomic level, which could help advance some treatments for cancer. 

The new machine—a superconducting magnet, called a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer—weighs ten tons and cost $10 million dollars. In the shape of a large cylinder, it’s around the size of a small compact car. 

Right now, it’s the most powerful magnet of its kind in the world. The device provides high-resolution images of some of the smallest parts of our cells such as DNA, RNA and proteins. 

Credit Katie Riordan
Dr. Babis Kalodimos says the spectrometer will give researchers unprecedented insight into what goes wrong with cancerous cells.

“We’ll be able to look at biological systems that have remained out of reach so far simply because...we didn’t have the right technology,” says Dr. Babis Kalodimos, the head of the hospital’s structural biology department. 

Though the hospital already has several other spectrometers, Kalodimos says the new magnet will provide scientists with a more precise snapshot of how normal cells function.

This will help them discern how cancerous cells malfunction as they investigate the biomolecular triggers for cancer. 

“You [can] look at some specific proteins that we know are implicated in certain diseases, like cancer for example,” says Kalodimos. “[Then] you ask...what has happened to this protein?”

Clinicians rely on these fundamental science studies, he says, to create new drug therapies. 

The magnet is scheduled to go online within the month.