Dr. Trevor Keel of the World Gold Council is back as our guest blogger on Above Ground for the second in his series on the uses of gold.

A few weeks ago I wrote a short blog describing the important, often hidden, role that gold plays in technology. It is a vital electronic component found in most devices we now take for granted and the rise of nanotechnology has re-invigorated research into the metal with exciting breakthroughs being made in a range of fields including clean technology and chemical catalysis.

Nano-gold is a material which can be seen as the very essence of sustainable value – small quantities of gold being used intelligently and efficiently helping to answer some of the world’s biggest challenges.

One other field which often generates a lot of interest is gold’s use in medicine; however, perhaps understandably, linking the two is not necessarily an intuitive step. In fact, the use of gold in medicine and dentistry dates back thousands of years. The earliest recorded medical use of gold was by the Chinese in 2500 BC. Since then numerous cultures have utilised gold-based medicinal preparations for the treatment of various ailments. Ayurvedic medicines on the Indian sub-continent also date back thousands of years, incorporating the medicinal use of minerals and metals, including gold, which were taken either in powder or tablet form.

Dentistry is another field boasting a long relationship with the yellow metal. As far back as the seventh century BC, the Etruscan peoples used gold wire to secure substitute teeth, understanding that the metal was malleable, would not degrade in the mouth and was biocompatible (i.e. there were no detrimental health effects associated with its use). Gold is still an important dental material today, with over 40 tonnes being used over the course of 2011.

The 20th century saw the birth of modern medicine and in 1929 it was reported that the use of a compound containing gold was beneficial in the treatment of arthritis. Later work, after the Second World War, demonstrated conclusively that gold drugs are effective in treating Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).

Various injectable gold formulations were developed before a tablet was successfully brought to market by Smith Kline & French (now part of the pharmaceutical group GlaxoSmithKline) in 1985. This treatment (named Auranofin) has now been superseded as a treatment for RA by more modern drugs, but a study published in 2012 has shown it to be potentially effective in treating a range of other ailments prevalent in developing nations such as dysentery (for example see www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-18117605). The story of Auranofin may be far from over…

Most recently, nanotechnology has broadened gold’s appeal in medicine even further. Gold nanoparticles are a critical component of a range of diagnostic tests with one of the earliest and best known examples of this is the common pregnancy testing kit.

However more complicated test kits also rely on gold, with companies such as PointCare (www.pointcare.net/) developing technologies to extend HIV-AIDS patient care and monitoring to the point-of-care in resource-limited settings such as sub-Saharan Africa. Essentially, such diagnostic kits can reach the less accessible parts of these regions, meaning that individuals don’t have to travel miles to reach a hospital or clinic for testing (to see just how important this consideration is in certain parts of the world see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7989856.stm). Gold nanoparticles are the ideal material for use in challenging environments as they are highly stable (even without refrigeration), cost-effective and most importantly reliable.

In addition to diagnostic devices, there is growing interest in using gold nanoparticles to treat disease directly. Numerous companies and academic groups are investigating the use of such particles to both deliver drugs to specific parts of the body more effectively or to destroy tumours through ablation (heating) therapy. A range of clinical trials are underway in humans, many of which are currently showing positive results.

In summary, the use of gold in medicine is a fascinating story stretching back millennia. However, the present day sees a wealth of new opportunities for gold to make further positive strides in the field of human health. Although the quantities of gold involved with these technologies are relatively small, the impact is potentially huge.

-Dr. Trevor Keel, World Gold Council

People don’t generally think of gold within the context of medical uses. How does this impact your view on the value of gold in society? Have you experienced or witnessed the use of gold in medical practices? Tell us your story.

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