Every day, more than 20,000 people around the world suc­cumb to cancer, according to sta­tis­tics com­piled by the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion. Thou­sands more con­tinue to suffer through treat­ment and its side effects.

Since the drugs used to kill cancer cells are just as toxic to neigh­boring healthy cells, researchers have long cov­eted a drug delivery method that tar­gets cancer cells alone, while bypassing the healthy ones.

One of these methods uti­lizes func­tional Mag­netic Res­o­nance Imaging, or fMRI, to steer drug-​​filled mag­netic nanopar­ti­cles directly to tumor masses where they can safely dis­charge their con­tents. “Even now, mag­netic drug delivery is being done,” said Dinos Mavroidis, Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Mechan­ical and Indus­trial Engi­neering at North­eastern. “It’s an actual clin­ical procedure.”

The problem, he said, is that con­trol­ling the nanopar­ti­cles’ course is still more an art than a sci­ence. To combat that problem, Mãni Ahmad­niaroud­sari, a grad­uate stu­dent in Mavroidis’ lab, is spear­heading the cre­ation of a better approach to MRI-​​guided drug delivery with sup­port from a National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion grant.

Mavroidis and his team of robotics engi­neers are con­trol experts. “In one sense, this nanopar­ticle is like a robotic system, a nanorobot,” Mavroidis said. Whereas the tra­di­tional robot has a motor incor­po­rated inside the system, here the nanoparticle’s motor is the mag­netic field itself. Their hope is to use their under­standing of robotics to develop a reli­able method for changing the forces applied to the nanopar­ticle by the MRI during drug delivery.

Mavroidis and Ahmad­niaroud­sari are col­lab­o­rating with researchers at the Ecole Poly­tech­nique de Mon­treal in Canada and the Uni­ver­sity of Orleans in France to make this vision a reality. The inter­na­tional researchers are experts in the exper­i­mental side of nanopar­ticle drug delivery, having car­ried out exten­sive inves­ti­ga­tions in the human body.

Exper­i­mental results require time and money, and are also harmful to test sub­jects, so we cre­ated a sim­u­la­tion plat­form that actu­ally models the move­ment of par­ti­cles inside the body,” explained Ahmad­niaroud­sari, who has a strong back­ground in physics, math­e­matics, and com­puter sci­ence. The sim­u­la­tion soft­ware he devel­oped, called Mag­nasim, incor­po­rates the phys­ical laws of mag­netic force to accu­rately guide imag­i­nary mag­netic nanopar­ti­cles through a sim­u­lated envi­ron­ment the same way MRI does it in real life.

According to Mavroidis, sim­u­lating a mag­netic field through the com­puter is a chal­lenging task. Since there was pre­vi­ously no need to do so, no soft­ware cur­rently exists to mag­net­i­cally guide the­o­ret­ical par­ti­cles through a space. With Ahmadniaroudsari’s pro­gram, clin­ical researchers would have the oppor­tu­nity to more quickly realize MRI-​​guided drug delivery for main­stream cancer treatment.