Tiny particles of gold could hold the key to treating the most common form of brain cancer, scientists have said.
The treatment involves smuggling tiny nano-particles of gold into the brain to kill tumour cells.
Researchers at the University of Cambridge said the ground-breaking technique could eventually be used to treat glioblastoma multiforme, which is the most common and aggressive brain tumour in adults, and is notoriously difficult to treat.
Many sufferers die within a few months of diagnosis, and just six in every 100 patients with the condition are alive after five years.
The research involved engineering nanostructures containing both gold and cisplatin, a conventional chemotherapy drug.
These were released into tumour cells that had been taken from glioblastoma patients and grown in the lab.
Once inside, these "nanospheres" were exposed to radiotherapy. This caused the gold to release electrons which damaged the cancer cell's DNA and its overall structure, enhancing the impact of the chemotherapy drug.
The process was so effective that, 20 days later, the cell culture showed no evidence of any revival, suggesting that the tumour cells had been destroyed.
While further work needs to be done before the same technology can be used to routinely treat patients, researchers say the results offer a highly-promising foundation for future therapies.
Importantly, the research was carried out on cell lines derived directly from glioblastoma patients, enabling the team to test the approach on evolving, drug-resistant tumours.
To date the cancer has proven very resistant to treatments. One reason for this is that the tumour cells invade surrounding healthy brain tissue, which makes the surgical removal of the tumour virtually impossible.
Used on their own, chemotherapy drugs can cause a dip in the rate at which the tumour spreads.
But in many cases this is temporary, as the cell population then recovers.
Scientists have been researching ways in which gold nano-particles could be used in treatments for some time and chose gold because it is a benign material which in itself poses no threat to the patient. The size and shape of the particles can also be controlled very accurately.
Stuart Leithes reports.