A tiny medical device containing gold nanoparticles could boost the effects of cancer medication and reduce its harm, suggests new research.

The study, published in the journal Agewandte Chemie, showed that gold increased the effectiveness of drugs used to treat lung cancer cells.

“We have discovered new properties of gold that were previously unknown and our findings suggest that the metal could be used to release drugs inside tumours very safely,” said Asier Unciti-Broceta from Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre, University of Edinburgh.

The findings could help researchers use the device to reduce side effects of current chemotherapies by precisely targeting diseased cells without damaging healthy tissue.

Gold is a safe chemical element and has the ability to accelerate — or catalyse — chemical reactions.

Minute fragments, known as gold nanoparticles, were encased in a chemical device by the research team to control these highly-specific reactions in exact locations.

The device was shown to catalyse a directed chemical reaction when implanted in the brain of zebrafish, suggesting it can be used in living animals.

Gold nanoparticles also activated anti-cancer medicines that had been applied to lung cancer cells in a dish, increasing the drugs’ effectiveness.

“There is still work to do before we can use this on patients, but this study is a step forward. We hope that a similar device in humans could one day be implanted by surgeons to activate chemotherapy directly in tumours and reduce harmful effects to healthy organs,” Unciti-Broceta said.

The study was carried out in collaboration with researchers at the University of Zaragoza’s Institute of Nanoscience of Aragon, Spain.

“By developing new, better ways of delivering cancer drugs, studies like this have the potential to improve cancer treatment and reduce side effects,” said Aine McCarthy, a senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK.