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Fighting cancer with pink diamonds

Nanodiamonds’ are being used to watch cells die. This could help us to understand how and when chemotherapy is effective in killing cells, and therefore improving cancer treatment.

Diamonds are widely desired for as gemstones thanks to their transparency and lustre, but our research exploits the diamonds that lack this prized perfection. Specifically, if two carbon atoms in the diamond are replaced by a nitrogen atom, then the resulting defect produces a pink colour in the diamond.

Pink diamonds can be used as precise nanoscale sensors for temperature, magnetic field, electric field and pressure, to name just a few. Their remarkable sensing capability comes from the underlying physics that gives rise to the pink colour, which is dependent on these properties. Excitingly, we can use tiny fragments of pink diamond, referred to as ‘nanodiamonds’ to target living cells. Because they are largely composed of carbon, they are thought to be non-toxic.

Most cancer treatment fails because cancer cells develop mechanisms to resist chemotherapy drugs over time. In this research, we will apply the sensing abilities of pink nanodiamonds to detect and monitor the death of cancer cells in response to chemotherapy. We hope to predict the fate of the cell within minutes of applying the drug and hence watch how cells die. This could help us to understand how drug resistance develops over time, equipping scientists with a new weapon in the fight against cancer.

Ben Woodhams

NanoDTC PhD Associate 2014

Department of Physics, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute