Gold has fascinated humans since the first time we laid eyes upon it glistening in the riverbeds. Today, a breakthrough in cancer research suggests that gold should not just be traded or worn but implemented as a medical treatment as well. Researchers from Cambridge University in the UK have found a way to use gold particles to kill the cells of the most popular and aggressive form of brain tumors, glioblastoma multiforme.

The difference between a scientist who finds a medical breakthrough and a scientist who does not lies not in his IQ but rather his ability to think outside the box. That’s exactly what researchers behind a recent study from Cambridge did. When tackling the aggressive and difficult-to-treat glioblastoma brain tumor, the researchers sought inspiration from the ancient concept of a Trojan horse. In doing so, they were able to use seemingly harmless gold particles inside tumor cells that when exposed to radiotherapy caused irreversible and eventually deadly damage on the cells. "This is not a cure, but it does demonstrate what nanotechnology can achieve in fighting these aggressive cancers,” co-lead author of the study, Mark Welland, explained in the press release.

Gold was chosen for this project based on its benign nature. Alone, the metal was unable to cause any damage to human cells, but when hit with radiotherapy, the metal releases powerful electrons that are capable of damaging cancer cells’ DNA and overall structure. Also, due to gold’s malleability, it is easily and accurately manipulated into any size or shape necessary.

Originally, the researchers found that the gold nanospheres were able to cause significant cell damage, but unfortunately the cells were easily able to recover from this. Undiscouraged, they added cisplatin, a common chemotherapy drug, to the nanospheres. They immediately noticed a change in results. When hit with radiotherapy, the cisplatin combined with the gold produced an enhanced effect and thus caused far more effective damage to the cancer cells. Within 20 days, the Trojan horse technique reduced the visible cell population “by a factor of 100 thousand” when compared against cells that did not receive the treatment. To add to this, no population renewal, such as what occurred when gold particles were used alone, were detected in this procedure.

This finding is huge in the field of nanotechnology, laying down the foundation for future medical developments. Doctors foresee it being used along chemotherapy to help increase the treatment’s effectiveness. "We need to be able to hit the cancer cells directly with more than one treatment at the same time," Dr Colin Watts, lead co-author on the study, explained. "This is important because some cancer cells are more resistant to one type of treatment than another.”

Welland believes that the technique is so effective that it could be developed to one day treat not only glioblastoma but other challenging cancers as well. “Nanotechnology provides the opportunity to give the cancer cells this 'double whammy,'" Watts said. 

Source: Watts C, Welland M, Setua S, Ouberai M, Piccirillo SGM. Cisplatin-tethered gold nanospheres for multimodal chemo-radiotherapy of Glioblastoma. Nanoscale. 2014.