Astronomers studying stars and black holes have discovered that heavy metals emit low-energy electrons when exposed to X-rays at specific energies - a finding they say could lead to safer and more effective cancer treatments in the future.
The finding raises the possibility that implants made of gold or platinum can allow doctors to destroy tumours with low-energy electrons, while exposing healthy tissue to far less radiation than is possible on Friday, the researchers said.
"As astronomers, we apply basic physics and chemistry to understand what's happening in stars. We're very excited to apply the same knowledge to potentially treat cancer," study author Sultana Nahar of Ohio State University was quoted as saying by LiveScience.
Computer simulations by the researchers suggested that hitting a single gold or platinum atom with a small dose of X-rays at a narrow range of frequencies produces a flood of more than 20 low-energy electrons.
These ejected electrons can kill cancer, shredding their DNA. So doctors can embed many heavy-metal nanoparticles inside and around tumours, then hit them with a tailored shot of radiation, the researchers said
The resulting electron shower can obliterate a tumour and the process would greatly reduce a patient's radiation exposure compared to most current radiation treatment methods.
For their research, presented at the International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy held recently in Columbus, the scientists built a prototype device that showed that specific X-ray frequencies can free low-energy electrons from heavy-metal nanoparticles.
While the machine needs to be developed further, it's providing a proof of principle for the potential cancer treatment technique, the astronomers said. "This could lead to a combination of radiation therapy with chemotherapy using platinum as the active agent."
The researchers came up with the new potential cancer treatment after studying the space. Specifically, they were trying to understand what different stars are made of, based on how radiation flows through them and emanates from them.
The team constructed complex computer models to simulate these processes. The models clued them into how heavy metals such as iron behave when they absorb different types of radiation.
Iron plays the dominant role in controlling radiation flow through stars. But it is also observed in some black hole environments, which produce some types of X-rays that can be detected from Earth, the researchers said.
They said, "That's when we realised that the implications went way beyond atomic astrophysics. X-rays are used all the time in radiation treatments and imaging, and so are heavy metals - just not in this way.
"If we could target heavy metal nanoparticles to certain sites in the body, X-ray imaging and therapy could be more powerful, reduce radiation exposure and be much more precise."