Jewelry beware, diamonds have a whole new purpose.
A new study out of Australia found synthetic versions of the bright gems to be effective at detecting early-stage cancerous tumors through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). With the American Cancer Society’s estimating that 1.6 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer and over 500,000 will die in 2015, the study could prove lifesaving for years to come.
Published in Nature Communications Friday, the study explores diamonds’ ability to light up cancer cells that are generally undetectable. The experiments were performed by a group of physicists from the University of Sydney who focused their study on nano-diamonds, 4-5 nanometer diamonds found inside meteorites.
The tiny gems have been explored in the cancer world before. In 2011, a study in Science Translational Medicine found that attaching them to chemotherapy drugs increased the effectiveness of the drug—effectively, shrinking tumors in mice. The Northwestern University engineers behind the study said there are two key characteristics that make nano-diamonds so useful: size and non-toxicity. This means that both the immune system and kidneys will not try to attack them.
It was this previous research that inspired the University of Sydney physics professor David Reilly to expand the research into the gems benefits.
"We knew nano-diamonds were of interest for delivering drugs during chemotherapy because they are largely non-toxic and non-reactive," said Reilly. "We thought we could build on these non-toxic properties realizing that diamonds have magnetic characteristics enabling them to act as beacons in MRIs. We effectively turned a pharmaceutical problem into a physics problem."
In order to study the nano-diamond’s ability to detect cancerous tumors, the researchers had to “hyperpolarize” them, which they describe as a “process of aligning atoms inside a diamond so they create a signal detectable by an MRI scanner.” The hyperpolarized nano-diamonds were attached to specific cancer-fighting molecules, so that they could be tracked throughout the body.
Watching these nano-diamonds provided a roadmap of cancer cells in the body—wherever they traveled, the cancer-fighting molecules were traveling too. "This is a great example of how quantum physics research tackles real-world problems,” says Reilly. “In this case opening the way for us to image and target cancers long before they become life-threatening.”
While diamonds’ role in both detecting and treating cancer sounds promising, it’s not the only shiny object to be explored by science. A growing body of evidence is now suggesting that gold may have its own unique powers when it comes to fighting cancer.
A joint study this April from researchers at Brown University and the University of Rhode Island found the precious metal capable of increasing the effectiveness of radiation treatments in cancer patients. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study was deemed a “good proof of concept” by the paper’s lead author Michael Antosh, and an “encouraging” step forward.
Smithsonian Magazine ran a piece on it titled “How Doctors Are Harnessing the Power of Gold to Fight Cancer” in which it suggests that gold may hold the key to curing cancer overall. In one particular study it mentions, doctors are said to be “injecting” cancer patients with “ultra-tiny, gold-wrapped spheres.” A chemist from Northwestern University named Chad Mirkin says the use of it is more widespread than it seems. “There are an enormous number of people using gold nanoparticles,” Mirkin told Smithsonian. “We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of researchers around the world.”
Whether gemstones or precious metals will prove most successful in fighting cancer remains to be seen. But if diamonds are forever, maybe cancer doesn't have to be.