Gold products go beyond ornaments, bracelets and pendants. Beauty gurus sell gold facial products that rake in profits. After all, legend has it that Cleopatra got her charm by sleeping in a pure gold face mask.

Chrysotherapy - the use of gold salts in the treatment of disease - dates back to 1890, when German bacteriologist Robert Koch discovered that gold compounds could curb the growth of the bacillus which caused tuberculosis.

Today, gold is making bold strides in medicine. Healthcare providers are utilising this valuable element for diagnostic procedures and medical treatments.

1. Cancer treatment

Gold compounds have increasingly been used to treat several types of cancer, the most impressive being its use in chemotherapy for tumours.

“Although not all cancer drugs contain metal, the most widely used treatments for many types of cancers are drugs such as cisplatin, whose chemical formula contains platinum,” says Richard Holliday from the World Gold Council.

However, like many cancer drugs, the drug kills healthy cells along with the cancer cells, resulting in side-effects such as hair loss.

One promising breakthrough is the use of gold nanoparticles. Because of gold's biocompatibility, nanoparticles can be injected intravenously and will naturally accumulate in the specific area of leaking vascularity such as tumours. According to Halliday, US researchers are carrying out clinical trials for a drug delivery system using tiny gold particles to target potent anticancer drugs with minimal side-effects.

The use of gold is encouraging in the treatment of prostate cancer, where injection of microscopic gold pellets help to inhibit tumour growth. “The position of the gold grains can be detected using X-rays, allowing doctors to target the prostate position within one or two millimetres,” explains Halliday.

2. HIV/AIDS detection

Similarly, nanotechnology has pushed advances in the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS. Research from Imperial College London revealed that the experimental gold nanoparticle techniques are able to sense the presence of a target molecule at ultra-low concentration, thus enabling early detection.

Though there is currently no cure for the disease, researchers remain hopeful. In an Italian study, researchers used a gold-based drug called auranofin, a drug originally used for rheumatoid arthritis, to treat six monkeys infected with an HIV-like virus. The results were significant: they were able to shrink the reservoir of virus-infected CD4 cells.

However, clinical trials would have to wait as a more thorough evaluation is needed. “We prefer not to involve people in a trial of the drug immediately,” says Enrico Garaci, president of the Italian Institute of Health, and co-author of the study.

“That’s because in this phase the trial could only be a proof-of-concept study, and we have already this proof in monkeys. We prefer to put all our effort in the intensification of the attack on the virus reservoir in monkeys by using a combined approach.”

3. Rheumatoid arthritis treatment

One of the earliest treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, gold therapy, a disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drug (DMARD), has declined in terms of use over the last two decades due to the arrival of better tolerated biologic and non-biologic DMARDs, such as methotrexate.

The most common form of gold treatment is via injection while the oral gold formulation appears to be less effective. Patients usually receive weekly injections which may eventually reduce to once a month.

According to a review, people with this condition receiving gold injections had 30% fewer swollen joints compared to people receiving placebo. The authors concluded that “although its use can be limited by the incidence toxicity, injectable gold has an important clinically and statistically significant benefit in the short term treatment of patients with rheumatoid arthritis.”

Jinoos Yazdany, associate professor of medicine at the University of California in San Francisco, explains, “The efficacy and side effects of the newer medications are so good at slowing down the course of the disease that other drugs should be considered first before gold.”

4. Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDT)

Nanotechnology has dominated most RDTs globally and has made remarkable changes to disease diagnosis over the last 10 years. With each test requiring minute gold particles, the total consumption of gold has spiked, along with increases in the number and type of RDTs, which translate into better health outcomes.

For example, gold nanoparticles have transformed the landscape of diagnosis of malaria, a potentially life-threatening disease. The tests, which are simple, reliable and cost-effective, use tiny amounts of gold to identify patients in less than 20 minutes. These gold particles help to produce a simple colour change to detect the presence of malaria in the patient’s blood sample.

David Bell from Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics stated, “At the nano-level, the quantity of gold being used is extremely low. Here, we see life-saving malaria diagnosis can be made available for millions of people at a low cost, showing that technologies using gold can advance global health.” MIMS

Read more:
7 promising medical developments to advance the future of healthcare
4 innovative discoveries that could soon treat major illnesses
Cancer: From conventional cures to modern medications