Known as a girl's best friend, diamonds make beautiful jewelries and have long been used to cut and polish conductors. Findings of a new study reveal another important use for this precious gem: detecting cancerous tumors prior to them becoming life threatening.

David Reilly, from the University of Sydney, and colleagues found that synthetic versions of diamonds can be used to detect cancer in the earliest stages through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The researchers said that while diamonds may seem expensive, the synthetic particles are cheap and readily available.

The gem does not light up on its own in an MRI scan but the researchers were able to devise a way so light from nanoscale, synthetic versions of diamond would be visible inside an MRI machine and indicate the presence of cancer.

The researchers' method involved hyperpolarizing nano-diamonds. The process aligns atoms inside a diamond, which produces a signal that can be detected by an MRI scanner.

The hyperpolarized diamonds are attached to chemicals that target cancer making it possible to track the movement of the diamonds as they move through the patient's body. Cancer will attract the chemicals to its site and the diamonds will beam on the MRI scan.

"Having those chemicals target certain types of cancers, bind to certain types of receptors, is something that's advanced," Reilly said. "What we've done is now develop that lighthouse to image those things in an MRI, thereby [allowing us to] actually see the cancers light up, without having to open somebody up."

The researchers hope to use the discovery for targeting cancers that are difficult to detect in the early stages such as pancreatic and brain cancers, two of the deadliest cancers, before they become life threatening and difficult to treat. The ability to detect these cancers at a very early stage would make treatment more effective.

"This is a great example of how quantum physics research tackles real-world problems, in this case opening the way for us to image and target cancers long before they become life-threatening," Reilly said.

The technology, which was reported in a study published in Nature Communications on Oct. 9, will be tested on mice in the coming weeks although it may still take many years before it can be used on humans. Nonetheless, it has huge potentials in saving many lives.

Figures from the American Cancer Society show that around 1.6 million individuals in the U.S. will develop cancer. Of these, more than 500,000 will die this year.

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