A quick disclaimer: Please refrain from forcing your sick grandma to ingest her 24-carat gold wedding ring. It will only further deteriorate her situation and piss off grandpa. On the other hand, she might be better off if you snagged her ring and sold it to researchers at Rice University, where scientists have recently discovered that gold-coated sand is the cure for cancer.
Not that you should offer grandma a smelted wedding ring on sand á la carte. The researchers at Rice use small gold-coated sand “nanoparticles” made via chemical reactions, one-billionth the size of a meter. To give you a sense of scale, the average height of a human is close to 1.5 meters. The diameter of the sun is about 1.5 billion meters; thus gold-coated sand nanoparticles are to humans as humans are to the diameter of the sun. In comparison to poor grandma’s tumors, the nanoparticles are about one million times smaller and many times less toxic to the human body.
Referring to the particles as “gold-coated sand” is a pretty good approximation of their composition. You can think of the nanoparticles as perfect spheres made up of an inner core and outer shell. The core is composed of silicon dioxide, the same material that makes up sand, glass, and your family’s prized porcelain possessions. Scientists chemically deposit a thin layer of gold around the silicon dioxide core, with a thickness generally three times larger than that of the core. Other compounds present in the nanoparticle, such as the food additive polyethylene glycol, assist in making the nanoparticle biocompatible.
The outer shell of the nanoparticle is where the magic happens. (Spoiler alert: it’s not magic.) Unlike your body, gold nanoparticles absolutely love infrared light. Infrared light has a wavelength that’s just beyond red and invisible to the human eye. Coincidentally, infrared light is also invisible to the human body. Shining an infrared flashlight at the human body will simply pass the light straight through (mostly) untouched. Gold, however, will absorb infrared light, causing the gold to vibrate and generate large amounts of heat. Tumors will do anything to get away from excess heat, including dying.
In 2004, researcher at Rice published an article showing effects of nanoparticle treatment on tumors in mice. Seven out of twenty four mice with tumors received a nanoparticle injection. After waiting for the nanoparticles to reach their final destination, scientists shined an infrared laser on the tumor of interest. Tumors on mice that did not receive nanoparticle injections doubled in size and ultimately killed the mice. (The tumors actually became the same size as their bodies. Don’t get me started on animal ethics in lab.) The seven mice with nanoparticles also eventually died, but of old age–each of their tumors was successfully destroyed without damaging other tissue in the body. Let’s see, if we do the math correctly, that’s a 100 percent success rate for mice treated with nanoparticles. Saved by the bling?
So why aren’t hospital storage rooms packed with gold-coated sand for immediate cancer treatment? First, more research on their toxicity is required before human testing. Silicon dioxide has little effect on the human body, but tiny particles of gold may have harmful properties. Second, scientists are currently optimizing the size and shape of the particles for cancer therapy because, unfortunately for scientists, Lipitor does not save cancer patients from gold-clogged arteries.