Open Access Research

Motion and twisting of magnetic particles ingested by alveolar macrophages in the human lung: effect of smoking and disease

Winfried Möller1*, Winfried Barth2, Martin Kohlhäufl3, Karl Häussinger3 and Wolfgang G Kreyling1

Author Affiliations

1 GSF National Research Center for Environment and Health, Clinical Research Group 'Inflammatory Lung Diseases' and Institute for Inhalation Biology, Gauting, Germany

2 GSI National Research Center for Heavy Ions, Darmstadt, Germany

3 Asklepios Hospital Munich-Gauting, Center for Respiratory Medicine, Gauting, Germany

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BioMagnetic Research and Technology 2006, 4:4  doi:10.1186/1477-044X-4-4

Published: 15 May 2006



Magnetic microparticles being ingested by alveolar macrophages can be used as a monitor for intracellular phagosome motions and cytoskeletal mechanical properties. These studies can be performed in the human lung after voluntary inhalation. The influence of cigarette smoking and lung diseases on cytoskeleton dependent functions was studied.


Spherical 1.3 μm diameter ferrimagnetic iron oxide particles were inhaled by 17 healthy volunteers (40 – 65 years), 15 patients with sarcoidosis (SAR), 12 patients with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), and 18 patients with chronic obstructive bronchitis (COB). The retained particles were magnetized and aligned in an external 100 mT magnetic field. All magnetized particles induce a weak magnetic field of the lung, which was detected by a sensitive SQUID (superconducting quantum interference device) sensor. Cytoskeletal reorganizations within macrophages and intracellular transport cause stochastic magnetic dipole rotations, which are reflected in a decay of the magnetic lung field, called relaxation. Directed phagosome motion was induced in a weak magnetic twisting field. The resistance of the cytoplasm to particle twisting was characterized by the viscosity and the stiffness (ratio between stress to strain) of the cytoskeleton.


One week after particle inhalation and later macrophage motility (relaxation) and cytoskeletal stiffness was not influenced by cigarette smoking, neither in healthy subjects, nor in the patients. Patients with IPF showed in tendency a faster relaxation (p = 0.06). Particle twisting revealed a non-Newtonian viscosity with a pure viscous and a viscoelastic compartment. The viscous shear was dominant, and only 27% of the shear recoiled and reflected viscoelastic properties. In patients with IPF, the stiffness was reduced by 60% (p < 0.02). An analysis of the shear rate and stress dependence of particle twisting allows correlating the rheological compartments to cytoskeletal subunits, in which microtubules mediate the pure viscous (non-recoverable) shear and microfilaments mediate the viscoelastic (recoverable) behavior. The missing correlation between relaxation and particle twisting shows that both stochastic and directed phagosome motion reflect different cytoskeletal mechanisms.


Faster relaxation and a soft cytoskeleton in patients with IPF indicate alterations in cytoskeleton dependent functions of alveolar macrophages, which may cause dysfunction's in the alveolar defense, like a slower migration, a retarded phagocytosis, a disturbed phagosome lysosome fusion and an impaired clearance.