MUMBAI, MAY 3:

Beyond the popular association with jewellery and investment, gold is finding a critical use in healthcare, from diagnosing illnesses such as malaria to newer uses such as targeting and treating tumours.

Nano-particles or miniscule particles of gold are increasingly used in rapid tests to diagnose malaria, for example — a development that is interesting for India, says Trevor Keel, World Gold Council’s technology head.

These are simple rapid generic kits containing very small gold quantities to test urine or blood and, because they are easy to handle, they can be used at remote locations that are not close to a healthcare facility, he explains.

Priced at $1 or less, millions of kits are used every year to diagnose malaria, leading to quick treatment, says Keel, formerly with healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline.

The use of gold in diagnostic kits is not entirely new technology, observes Biswaroop Chatterjee, a microbiologist at the Himalayan Institute of Medical Sciences. But its use is increasing because these kits can be handled by people with minimal training. Since gold is stable, the kits are “hardier” than traditional kits that may need to be stored with care, because of temperature differences, explains Chatterjee.

TARGET TUMOURS

Gold was used in dentistry and ayurveda, but the last decade is seeing a resurgence of gold in modern medicine, says Keel, adding that companies in the US and Europe were testing opportunities thrown up by gold nano technology.

Coated with medicine, small gold particles are being used as delivery vehicles, for instance to deposit the drug on a tumour, Keel says, though the technology is still being tested. In another healthcare use, gold accumulated in a tumour is heated using light rays, in the process thermally destroying the tumour.

Last December, the US-based nano-medicine company CytImmune began a feasibility study for its tumour-targeting therapy, with drug-major Astra Zeneca. The new cancer nano-medicine involved binding the oncology compound from AstraZeneca to CytImmune’s tech-platform comprising gold nano-particles.

It is a new thinking in cancer therapies, CytImmune President and Chief Executive Lawrence Tamarkin said, as the tumour-targeted approach did not affect healthy cells. It was more efficient and improved patient outcomes, he added. With a pipeline of gold-based drugs at different stages of testing, Tamarkin said, the company had applied for a patent on the technology in India as well.

NON-TOXIC

Responding to whether gold deposited in the body would create problems, Keel said the quantity was small and there was no report of adverse reaction to the metal. Besides, it gets cleared out of the body. As is the case with medicines on trial, there may be side-effects linked with the drug, he added. Nevertheless, gold was non-toxic, he said, adding that this year WGC was supporting the research of gold in diagnostic uses.

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