Could it be that diamonds are more than just a girl’s best friend – and are instrumental in the early detection and treatment of some of the worst types of cancer?

Physicists at the University of Sydney’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems have found a way to use nanoscale or synthetic “diamonds” to identify cancerous tumors before they turn life-threatening.

Published in Nature Communications, the study devised a way to use these diamonds – the synthetic, cheaper version that that is more readily accessible – in lighting up early-stage cancers during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Lead researcher and physics professor David Reilly highlighted the nontoxic, nonreactive nature of nanodiamonds, making them potentially useful in drug delivery during chemotherapy.

“We effectively turned a pharmaceutical problem into a physics problem,” he said, citing that the team hyperpolarized nanodiamonds or aligned atoms inside them to create an MRI-detectable signal.

Lead study author Ewa Rej explained that after magnetizing the atoms and making them light up on an MRI scan, the diamonds are then attached to cancer-targeting chemicals. The diamonds are afterwards injected into the body, tracked, and will provide a “lighthouse” on the scan if cancer is present.

The study was an example of how quantum physics tackled “real-world problems,” particularly how it could image and target cancers that are difficult to detect in early stages, including brain and pancreatic cancers. In pancreatic cancer, early tumors cannot be seen or felt by doctors during routine physical exams, and symptoms do not manifest until the cancer has reached other organs.

Nanodiamonds also show outstanding absorption ability. A single and properly controlled imperfection within one can result in an isolated colored center, letting it function as single trapped atom and leading to a huge surface area for such strong bonds with numerous other materials.

They can bond with chemotherapy medications, which naturally find it difficult to pass through the blood-brain barrier. Nanodiamonds can therefore transport these drugs through the blood-brain barrier and directly into the brain.

Helen Zorbas, chief executive of Cancer Australia, welcomed the discovery specifically in the case of brain and pancreatic cancers, which are two of the deadliest types of the disease. "It potentially means that treatment can be more effective,” she said.

Each year, cancer claims over half a million American lives and accounts for one in every four deaths in the country. It is the second leading cause of death next to heart disease. According to the latest available data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 580,000 Americans – about 1,600 a day – perished from cancer in 2012.

Photo: Rosana Prada | Flickr 

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