Diamonds are forever; besides being beautiful ornaments, they could also help medical scientists in the near future. Physicists from the University of Sydney have discovered a way to use diamonds for identifying malignant tumors before they cause life-threatening complications.

Published in Nature Communications, the study reveals how a nano-scale, synthetic adaptation of this precious gem could detect early-stage cancerous tumors in non-toxic, non-invasive MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans.

The Idea Of Using Diamonds

Using specialized chemicals to target cancers is not a new concept. However, the problem with such techniques is the struggle of detecting where the chemicals go – other than a biopsy, very few methods are available to analyze whether a treatment or chemical has been adopted by the cancerous cells.

Lead researcher Professor David Reilly from the School of Physics, along with other researchers from the University studied how nano-scale diamonds could be used to identify cancerous tumors in their earliest stages. Nano-scale diamonds have been of interest as potential drug delivery systems during chemotherapy, since they are mainly non-toxic and non-reactive.

“We thought we could take advantage of these non-toxic properties. Moreover, diamonds have magnetic characteristics that enable them to function as beacons in MRIs”, explained Prof. Reilly. “Hence, we efficiently modified a pharmaceutical struggle into a physics problem”.

How The Diamonds Would Detect Cancers

Professor Reilly’s team focused on hyper-polarizing nano-diamonds. This involves aligning the atoms within a diamond in order to create a signal that can be detected by an MRI scanner.

“Attaching the hyper-polarized diamonds to cancer-targeting molecules can allow scientists to track their movement within the body”, explained Ewa Rej, the study’s lead author.

“This significantly highlights the use of quantum physics to tackle real-world problems, opening new venues for visualizing and targeting cancers long before they cause life-threatening complications”, stated Professor Reilly.

What’s Next?

The physicists are now working in collaboration with medical researchers to test this new technology in animals. Another novel development in similar context is the use of scorpion venom to identify brain tumors using MRI scanning.