Precious metals aren’t just used as investments and for jewelry—some of them have a wide range of industrial applications as well.
Silver, for example, is used (and used up) in a multitude of products, from solar panels to glass coatings, LED chips, semiconductors, touch screens, water purification, and more.
Silver’s big brother gold, on the other hand, has far fewer industrial uses. However, that could change very soon.
According to the latest numbers from market research firm Global Market Insights, the market size for gold nanoparticles is projected to reach $8 billion by 2022.
Most of the growth is expected to come from a growing trend to use gold in medical applications—for imaging, diagnosis, drug delivery, and photo-thermal therapy, as well as coating titanium-based dental implants.
Here are a few examples of the most exciting new uses for gold nanoparticles.
According to laboratory research presented at the 2016 Cancer Conference of the UK-based National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI), the yellow metal might have a bright future in the medical sector.
Research into the best ways to transport a drug directly into the heart of a cancer cell where the chromosomes reside has been going on for years, but it has recently reached the breakthrough stage.
Scientists from the Cancer Research UK/MRC Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology have figured out how to deploy gold nanoparticles as safe vehicles for a drug that shuts down a molecule called telomerase in the cancer cell—a process that keeps the malignant cell from rejuvenating and growing out of control.
The best part: Only cancer cells are attacked by the miniature knights in golden armor. Unlike the traditional slash-and-burn methods (chemotherapy and radiation), which often do more harm than they help, healthy cells remain completely unharmed with this treatment.
The same gold nanoparticles can also be used to deliver a dose of cancer-killing radioactivity to cancer cells. So far, the best results have been achieved utilizing both approaches in a one-two punch.
Cancer Research UK’s CEO, Sir Harpal Kumar, stated that “this research adds further insight into [gold’s] potential. Ensuring that treatment is accurately targeted at cancer and avoids healthy cells is the goal for much of cancer research, and this is an exciting step towards that.”
Serving as transporters for drugs and radiation is not the only way gold nanoparticles can be utilized in revolutionary new cancer treatments. They are also helpful in “photothermal therapy,” as a 2016 article in the Journal of Nanomaterials describes.
Gold nanoparticles (GNPs) are irradiated by near-infrared light, leading to the excitation of the surface electrons and converting the light into heat. The GNPs form large clusters inside the cancer cells and release their heat load—which destroys the cancer cells’ membranes and proteins and causes irreversible damage.
Granted, there have been setbacks. For example, some of the gold nanoparticles can end up in and around normal cells, so the lasers used to heat up the GNPs could hurt those cells as well. That’s especially precarious in cases where tumors surround vital tissues like nerves or arterial walls.
Some recent improvements in the scientists’ methodology look promising, though. They equipped the GNPs with immune protein antibodies that specifically latched on to cancer cell receptors, and instead of firing continuous laser beams, they used ultrashort infrared pulses.
One unintended but favorable side effect of this new approach was higher temperatures wherever GNPs formed large clusters. As a consequence, the greater heat would vaporize adjacent water molecules, which created tiny bubbles that expanded and “exploded,” blowing up the cancer cells. Normal tissue wasn’t affected.
In cases where most of the tumor was able to be surgically removed, after secondary treatment with GNPs, the survival rate of tested lab mice was 100%. All residual cancer cells had been eradicated.
It remains to be seen if this therapy will work on humans as well as it does on rodents, but if it does, we may be looking at a revolution in the history of cancer treatments that makes the old-school, harmful therapies obsolete.
Now, how much gold is actually being used in these therapies?
Not much. A gold nanoparticle is smaller than a red blood cell, and some of the above-mentioned therapies use as little as 3% of the amount found in a typical wedding band.
Let’s do the math. An 18k men’s wedding band with 4 grams of pure gold would yield 0.12 grams of gold nanoparticles (3%).
Assuming that more than one nano injection is needed for a round of cancer treatments (I went with 3), that would be 0.36 grams of gold.
In 2016, 1,685,210 Americans were newly diagnosed with cancer. If the above-mentioned cutting-edge therapies went mainstream and every one of these patients were treated with gold nanoparticles, that would make 606,676 grams of gold, or 19,505 troy ounces.
Granted, it’s not a huge amount. But consider that this is just one year’s worth of new cancer diagnoses—not counting the people who have been living with cancer already or who will be diagnosed in the future—and only in the United States. Multiply this throughout the world and over many years, and the effect on industrial gold demand could be substantial.
Also, unlike most other applications for gold, this one actually uses up the metal (unless some future scientists invent a gold retrieval method from the blood of deceased patients), thus diminishing the overall “above-ground” gold supply.
Add to that the other, non-medical industrial uses for gold nanoparticles—such as specialty inks for the electronics industry that are used in storage devices, hard disks, microchips, thin film transistors, and photo sensors—and it seems heightened industrial demand for the yellow metal is all but unstoppable.
Just one more good reason to incorporate physical gold into your portfolio and capitalize on this emerging trend.
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