While studying how stars and black holes emit and absorb radiation, Ohio State University astronomers discovered that heavy metals such as iron emit low-energy electrons when exposed to X-rays at specific energies.

Working with radiation oncologists and medical physicists, the scientists now plan to examine whether heavy-metal nanoparticles might allow doctors to obliterate tumors with low-energy electrons while sparing healthy tissue.

“If we could target heavy-metal nanoparticles to certain sites in the body, X-ray imaging and therapy could be more powerful, reduce radiation exposure, and be much more precise,” predicts astronomy professor Anil Pradhan.

At the International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy in June, senior research scientist Sultana Nahar announced findings of computer simulations of the technique using gold and platinum nanoparticles. Once injected into the body, the nanoparticles, coated with tumor antigens, would target and latch on to the tumor. The nanoparticles, the thinking goes, would absorb the X-rays. A large number of relatively low-energy electrons would then break free, killing the malignant cells. The researchers constructed models with gold and platinum because those metals have been used safely in humans.

Typical X-ray machines, such as CT scanners, generate X-rays at a wide spectrum of energies, so the research team, which includes colleagues at Thomas Jefferson University Medical College, will work to develop an easy-to-use, low-cost device to deliver mono-energetic X-rays in hospitals.