Gold is a truly fascinating element. Forged during the universe’s most violent moments, serendipity delivered our planet a sprinkling of the metal which has gone on to alter the course of history in many ways; wars, cities, and technology have all been shaped by our desire to find the yellow metal, and marriage continues to be signified by the gold wedding bands many of us wear. Few other materials can lay claim to such influence on human history.
I have worked in the gold industry for almost a decade now, and have been fortunate to be involved in the development of a range of new gold-based technologies. I actually began my career in the pharmaceutical industry, and it is those advances in the healthcare sector which always pique my interest above all. Gold has an interesting history within modern medicine; SmithKline & French successfully developed and launched a gold-based rheumatoid arthritis drug called Auranofin in the mid-1980s. Auranofin has since been identified as potentially effective against a range of diseases including ovarian cancer and dysentery, and it is undergoing clinical trials for these new potential indications. Related gold-based compounds are showing promise as a new class of antibiotic, with early phase clinical studies currently underway.
However, it’s the medical diagnostics sector that has come to rely heavily on gold. Gold nanoparticle-based diagnostic test kits (commonly known as rapid diagnostic tests, or RDTs) have been at the forefront of the fight against many common diseases for decades. For example, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 300 million gold-containing tests were used in 2016 in the diagnosis of malaria, primarily in Africa and Asia. Several NGOs and funding bodies have set the goal of eliminating malaria by 2040-2050, and having access to improved gold-containing diagnostics will help achieve this goal. Currently, researchers around the world are working on improving the sensitivity of the RDTs and developing smart reader devices to allow more accurate diagnoses alongside better data collation and management.
The quality of gold nanoparticle is a critical component of any diagnostic system; indeed, during the early years of this technology control of the nanoparticle characteristics were not sufficient, which often led to poor quality tests. For acute diseases like malaria, this is of utmost importance when considering diagnosis; any level of uncertainty over the outcome of a test inevitably led to antimalarials being distributed whether they were actually required or not, essentially making the test result moot. Thankfully, these days are behind us thanks to companies like Sona providing the highest quality gold nanoparticles for incorporation into the next generation of highly sensitive and specific diagnostic devices.
The R&D landscape for gold nanotechnology is currently as buoyant as I’ve ever seen it. I was pleased to be able to attend Gold 2018, where I met Sona’s Chris Yourth and saw first-hand just how much progress is being made in the sector. The promise of gold in both the diagnosis and treatment of disease is unquestioned, and I believe it will be collaborative, innovative companies such as Sona that convert this promise into the next generation of diagnostics tools and medicines.
Trevor Keel is director of Material Value, a specialist metals and materials consultancy, and is a consultant to the World Gold Council.