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Could magnets replace aspirin as blood thinners?

Two physicists who have pioneered the use of electric or magnetic fields to lower oil viscosity in engines and pipelines take their model to the human body to help prevent heart attacks.

Applying a magnetic field to blood causes red blood cells to form links that help blood flow better. R. Tao and K. Huang, Physics Review E

Temple University physics department chair Rongjia Tao made headlines in 2008 when he developed a simple device that creates an electric field to thin fuel, thereby reducing the size of the droplets injected into the engine and improving fuel efficiency.

Now, Tao and former graduate student Ke Huang are unveiling their latest research that this same principle, when applied to the human body, can help thin blood and reduce one's risk of heart attack--without the side effects of blood thinners such as aspirin.

After testing numerous blood samples at Temple, the physicists were able to use a magnetic field of 1.3 Telsa (roughly equivalent to what is used in an MRI) for just one minute to polarize the red blood cells, which contain iron, thereby causing those cells to link together in short, streamlined chains flowing down the center of blood vessels and reducing friction along the walls.

The result: smoother blood flow. In fact, after just 1 to 12 minutes of exposure to the magnetic field via a 1,000-pound magnet, blood viscosity decreased by 20 to 30 percent for several hours. Eventually, blood viscosity returned to previous levels.

While more research is imperative before the technique is deemed safe and effective, Tao says in a news release that his method is not only safer than drugs but also highly specific in its control of viscosity: "By selecting a suitable magnetic field strength and pulse duration, we will be able to control the size of the aggregated red-cell chains, hence to control the blood's viscosity."

The magnet Tao and Huang used does not have the ionizing radiation found in CT scans, which many studies have shown can be harmful. It instead works like the magnetic coil found in MRI, which uses magnetic fields to capture images inside the body; electrical current through the coil turns it into an electromagnet that can produce a very high magnetic field, which has been found to have no harmful biological effects.

Tao adds that the technique is not dependent on blood type and does not interfere with the normal oxygen delivery and waste removal function of the red blood cells.

The study will be published in the journal Physical Review E.