Published on January 23rd, 2010 | by Tina Casey


Nanodiamonds are Forever and They Can Reduce Toxic Metals, Too

January 23rd, 2010 by  

Tiny nano-diamonds could lead to new medical diagnostic methods that do not use toxic heavy metals.Nano-scale medical research is promising some amazing breakthroughs in diagnosis and drug delivery techniques.  In spectroscopy, for example, tiny crystals called qdots (quantum dots, also called nanocrystals) can be used to study cells at the molecular level. It’s an emerging field that’s ready to explode into mainstream medicine – but there’s a catch.


Most qdots contain toxic heavy metals such as cadmium.  Aside from their effect on the person undergoing a procedure, the more widespread use of toxic metals in medicine raises concern over the impact those metals will have on the medical waste stream.  That’s where nanodiamonds come in.  The tiny diamond nanoparticles may offer the best of both worlds: a non-toxic alternative that enables qdot research to push forward, without introducing more harmful substances into the environment.

Nanodiamonds and Heavy Metal Qdots

A team of qdot researchers in Taiwain has demonstrated that the surface of nanodiamonds can be modified to enable tracking through several techniques including confocal microcopy (using pinhole-scale light to create images), bio-AFM (a method of measuring molecular-level forces), and flow cytometry (a fluid-based method for counting small particles).  According to the researchers, the modified nanodiamonds can be introduced into human cells without causing damage.  In contrast, the risk posed by heavy metals such as cadmium qdots can be significant.  In small doses cadmium can cause flu-like symptoms but in larger quantities it can cause severe or permanent damage to lungs, liver, kidneys, and bones.

Nanodiamonds in Action

Researchers at Northwestern University have found that nanodiamonds possess certain properties that make them ideal for biomedical use.  Aside from their lack of toxicity, nanodiamonds can be suspended in water and they have a large surface area, so they can be “loaded up” with drugs for delivery, like nano-sized mail carriers.  Nanodiamonds can even be combined with insulin to help heal wounds more quickly, with less risk of infection. Northwestern researchers also recently announced a study showing that nanodiamonds can also boost the effectiveness of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).  In conventional MRI, a semi-magnetic rare earth metal called gadolinium is used to highlight contrasts to create an image.  More contrast yields a more detailed image, and the researchers achieved a ten-fold increase in contrast by adding nanodiamond particles to gadolinium.

Image:  Diamonds by Swamibu on flickr.com.

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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.

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