Fighting cancer with Aussie gold

Team from UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology including UQ's Professor Matt Trau (middle) and RHS: Charmaine Saltner & Fiona Murfitt from Evolution Mining.

Gold Industry Group member Evolution Mining has partnered with The University of Queensland to propel the use of gold nano sensors in early cancer detection and research into long haul COVID-19 immune response.

Australia’s gold miners are significant contributors to the health of our economy, with a record 327 tonnes produced last year. 

While the financial benefits are prevalent, the precious metal has also emerged as a key part of medical research applications using nanotechnology. 

The University of Queensland’s (UQ) Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology has proven this by developing a gold nanoparticles blood test that reveals early signs of cancer.

This was uncovered by UQ researchers Abu Sina, Laura Carracosa and Matt Trau, who discovered a DNA signature that is common among all cancers.

By analysing patterns of molecules in DNA signatures (methyl groups), the researchers found that cancer cells cause these molecules to cluster together in specific locations and fold up into three-dimensional nanostructures that stick to gold. 

“The inertness of gold, as well as its unique chemical and physical properties makes it ideal for many of our medical applications,” Trau tells Safe to Work.

To advance the research, gold miner Evolution Mining committed to a partnership with UQ which has now pivoted into researching long-haul COVID-19 immune response. 

“Evolution is pleased to be able to support this Australian research and Australian innovation using Australian gold. We are eager to share our innovative partnership with UQ with the rest of the gold industry,” Evolution vice president sustainability Fiona Murfitt says. 

“UQ’s research offers an opportunity for Evolution to contribute to the health of the communities we operate in, to the wider world, and to demonstrate the relevance of gold now and in the future through an innovative project.”

Despite the initial setbacks of COVID-19, the researchers marched on thanks to Evolution’s support. 

Gold nano sensors can be used in early cancer detection.

“In a climate where research funding for blue sky projects is shrinking, the funding received from Evolution Mining was absolutely pivotal to stabilise and grow our research,” Trau says. 

“It was also pivotal to receive these precious funds to continue to grow our work during the COVID-19 economic downturn/uncertainty.”

After successfully using gold for cancer detection, the team focused on developing the Immuno-Storm Chip, which monitors the immune system over-response at 1000 times the sensitivity of conventional technology. 

It is designed to show whether patients are at risk of an uncontrolled immune response that can damage body tissues, and once again, the use of gold was pivotal in the study.

Trau and his team have created a tiny array of gold pillars and attached antibodies that stick to cytokine molecules in blood samples, which can reveal the early signs of uncontrolled immune response.

According to the researchers, gold-silver nanotag particles emit bright light when they are in contact with cytokine molecules, which enables inexpensive detection through optical imaging equipment. 

“Having developed the technology for cancer applications, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we pivoted our attention to the development of the Immuno-Storm Chip in order to try and help the exponentially growing number of acute and long-haul COVID-19 patients,” Trau says. 

“Because this technology is able to monitor the immune system over-response at 1000 times greater sensitivity than conventional technology, from a small drop of blood, it is now beginning to open up many other opportunities for medical applications in other dangerous infectious diseases (e.g. Sepsis), cancer therapy monitoring and auto-immune disease.”

The gold miner retained its ranking in the top performing Australian mining companies for corporate sustainability in 2020, according to the Dow Jones Sustainability Index Australia, further strengthening its sustainability reputation.

“Evolution is proud to partner with UQ to support research for early cancer diagnosis using Australian gold and we’re excited to see what comes next,” Murfitt says.

“It’s Australian research, Australian innovation using Australian gold being applied to help people impacted by cancer and also identifying the long-haul impacts of COVID-19, which is in line with our sustainability approach to leave positive legacies for our people and within our communities.”

Gold Industry Group champions its members’ efforts to support health projects across Australia, with Evolution Mining’s partnership with UQ just one of several examples. 

Evolution Mining partnered with UQ to advance gold nanoparticle research.

The industry association helps the sector to tell stories of the many uses gold has in everyday life that Australians might not be aware of. 

Gold Industry Group executive officer Rebecca Johnston says it is important to show the benefits that gold offers.

“Bringing awareness to the fact that gold has contributed significantly to the advancement of science and medicine will create a better understanding of gold’s value and relevance,” Johnston says. 

“Due to the many benefits it provides to communities from technology to medicine, it is important gold’s value is not only measured in economic terms, but also the tangible ways which drive humanity.”

Johnston says the gold industry is actively supporting similar projects to the partnership between Evolution and UQ.

Through Telethon, for example, Northern Star Resources, Gold Fields and Gold Road Resources have donated gold bars for the past three years.

“Northern Star Resources also funds Wal-yan Respiratory Research Centre director professor Stephen Stick, a career clinician and clinical researcher whose research focus has been in the earliest manifestations of chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and cystic fibrosis and developing interventions to prevent long-term lung damage,” Johnston says.

Despite fluctuating prices, these examples show that Australian gold miners are doing more than some may expect to drive innovation and services in other sectors.

This article also appears in the July 2021 issue of Safe To Work.

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