Magnets May Cull Deadly Germs from Blood


By April Fischione

When someone is admitted to the hospital for an outpatient procedure, they wouldn’t expect to develop a life-threatening illness. However, sepsis is one such illness caused by the body’s response to an infection. Sepsis develops when your immune system reacts to fight an infection, but the response instead causes inflammation throughout the body. An infection anywhere in the body can trigger sepsis. Each year, more than a million Americans are affected by this condition and 28% of the cases prove to be fatal. Treatment for sepsis must be started quickly, and cases can worsen dramatically by the time doctors identify the condition and determine the best treatment. 

There’s a Chance

Our immune systems use antibodies to attack and latch onto bacteria and viruses, and a chemical engineer at the Swiss Federal Laboratory for Materials Science and Technology invented a way to track those antibodies. If antibodies were attached to tiny particles of iron oxide, one could use a magnet to remove them along with bacteria that they contacted from the blood. This theory was tested using the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (which can cause sepsis) and a blood-like liquid. After adding antibody-coated iron oxide particles to the contaminated liquid, 98% of the bacteria were collected by the strength of a simple magnet.

The Future is Near

In the near future, doctors may be able to treat sepsis in a manner similar to the treatment of severe kidney disease. Patients with sepsis would be hooked up to a machine that would treat their infection by removing bacteria as they become coated with the iron-oxide antibody mixture. Sepsis is a life-threatening illness, and both time and lives may be saved with the assistance of magnets.

Discussion Questions

  • How is severe kidney disease treated?
  • What is the difference between sepsis and septicemia (blood poisoning)
  • Immune System
  • Dialysis
  • Antibody