Dazzling Diamonds: How gold could be used in new cancer treatments
2015-09-23 16:10:22



Mary Cruse is the science communicator at the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s national synchrotron science facility at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus. The facility is used by over 3,000 academic and industrial researchers across a wide range of disciplines including structural biology, energy, engineering, nanoscience and environmental sciences. Read Mary’s next column on September 30


We’ve come a long way with cancer research. In the 1970’s, less than 25 per cent of people with cancer survived; today, one in two people will get through it. That’s a huge advance, but there’s still work to be done.


The most pressing issue with current treatments is that they need to be more targeted.


Chemo and radiotherapy work by exposing a patient to chemicals or radiation designed to kill off cancerous tissue. However, because they cannot discriminate between cancerous cells and normal cells, they also affect healthy tissue, which leads to a host of really unpleasant side-effects like nausea and hair loss.


Existing treatments are also untargeted in that they don’t allow for genetic differences between individuals – this makes them unpredictable.


We’re all built differently, so while they might work well for one person, another person might see fewer benefits and worse side-effects.


Research currently taking place looks to develop cancer treatments that are more personalised, targeted, and effective.


Next generation therapies are designed to work with each individual’s personal genetic make-up, reducing the chance of failure. These treatments are also more intelligent, targeting only the cancerous tissue, thus reducing collateral damage and the resulting side-effects.


All of this is becoming possible because of developments in technology that allow scientists to look at the impact of treatments at a molecular and atomic level; this allows them to develop approaches that are more highly-focused and accurate.


With a host of advanced facilities that enable this sort of intricate research, Oxfordshire attracts scientists from around the UK to study progressive cancer therapies.


Two key areas of research taking place in the county at the Diamond Light Source synchrotron are T-cell and nanomedical cancer treatments.


Both these approaches look at interactions taking place at a micro-level, and both have considerable advantages over existing treatments.


T-cells are a type of white blood cell responsible for finding and destroying unwelcome cells.


These incredible cells are covered in little fingers known as ‘receptors’, which allow them to identify anything out of the ordinary and destroy the threat. Scientists are currently looking at ways of enhancing patients’ own T-cells so that they can recognise and bind to cancerous proteins, destroying them before cancer has the chance to further develop.


Nanomedical cancer treatments are similarly targeted. Tiny gold particles have the ability to enhance and target radiation. By inserting them into the site of a tumour, doctors could treat cancer patients with much less radiotherapy, and yet destroy cancerous cells in a precise way that leaves surrounding tissue unharmed.


Both of these approaches would potentially lead to patients experiencing fewer side-effects and seeing better results from their treatment.


This work is still in its early stages and experiments will continue at Oxfordshire’s advanced science facilities, but this research is bringing us closer to improved cancer therapies and demonstrating once again that science saves lives.