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Health, Science & Tech

Pitt Team Researches Nano-Alloys That Could Shine Light on Cancer

Imagine a material able to detect tiny tumors in the human body and a variation of that material that can improve the conversion of crude oil into plastic.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh working on nanoscale alloys have demonstrated materials with properties to detect cancer sooner. One nanometer is about the size of a double stranded helix (remember your high school science DNA lessons?), and it’s smaller than the average human cell.

The alloys have multiple properties, not just related to what makes up a material.

“Think of the periodic table as being three-dimensional, so all the elements we thought we knew, now at the nanometer scale have properties we never have seen before,” said Jill Millstone, assistant professor of chemistry and principal investigator of the study. 

One of those properties is the emission of bright light. Millstone said researchers have known for the last five years that pure gold nanoparticles emit light, but the alloys her team have been developing emit “near-infrared light.” 

That quality could be used in a similar way to the way radioactive molecules are used in techniques such as PET scans.  According to Millstone,  nanoalloys could be used as "molecular" imaging agents. Instead of radioactivity, researchers would detect the bright light, spotting small tumors and possibly cancer at an early stage.

She said an alloy of gold and cobalt, which is magnetic, could also be used for treatment. 

“If we put these gold-cobalt particles into a magnetic field and we switch that magnetic field back and forth, the particles start to rotate," Millstone said. "And what that does is it heats up the surrounding tissue, and if it’s embedded in the tissue, it will actually heat up so much that it will kill the (cancerous) tissue.”

But according to Millstone, the applications of the nanoalloys are not limited to the medical field. The researchers are studying using the alloys in “industrial catalysis” — helping make the conversion of fossil fuels more efficient.

“Fossil fuels also make up all the plastics we see, all the pharmaceuticals that we see," Millstone said. "So, if we can get from the crude oil to the fine chemical more efficiently, then we also do a lot in terms of helping use fossil fuels more reasonably.”

The findings have been published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.