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Nanoscale silicon quantum dots are being developed in New Zealand. They will be able to locate and show up cancerous cells in humans, and deliver drugs to them.

What are quantum dots?

Quantum dots are nanoparticles of semiconductor materials, clusters of atoms only a few nanometres across. A special property of quantum dots is that they fluoresce – when ultra-violet light (invisible to human eyes) is shone on them, they re-emit the light as a visible colour. The colour they give off depends on the size and shape of the quantum dot. It is possible to create quantum dots that emit just about any colour you want. Quantum dots are being developed for use in such things as LEDs and television screens, but they also have medical uses.

Locating cancer using quantum dots

Quantum dots that can be used to find and treat cancer are being developed by Dr Richard Tilley and others at Victoria University of Wellington and the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology.

Many of the quantum dots developed in other countries use chemicals such as cadmium. Cadmium is a highly toxic metal, sitting directly above mercury in the periodic table. Dr Tilley and his team have been able to create non-toxic quantum dots using silicon.

These quantum dots can be put into single cells, or lots of cells, in the tissue of living organisms. In future, it is planned to attach specific antibodies to the quantum dots – when injected into a body, the quantum dots will find and bind to cancer cells, and illuminate them when they fluoresce.

There are advantages to using quantum dots rather than the current organic dyes used to highlight living cells:

  • Quantum dots last longer. Organic dye molecules only last for about 30 minutes in a human body. Quantum dots can emit light for days. By following the quantum dots over time, it will be possible to monitor and show if treatment is working.
  • Silicon quantum dots are less toxic.
  • Quantum dots will be able to detect cancer earlier. Current detection methods, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), can only detect tumours that are well developed. Quantum dots can detect individual cancer cells.

Targeted drug delivery

Eventually, it is intended to attach drug molecules to the quantum dots, which will then be able to deliver the drug just to the cancer cells where it is needed. Current anti-cancer drugs tend to have a range of unpleasant side-effects, because they affect the whole body, not just the cancer. The research is still in its early stages – it is hoped that quantum dots should be available to help treat cancer in about ten years.

Examples of collaboration by scientists

Nature of science

The research led by Dr Richard Tilley on quantum dots is a good example of the way different scientists collaborate to solve nanotechnology problems.

Each of the following scientists make a specific contribution to the research on quantum dots:

  • Synthetic chemist (Dr Richard Tilley, MacDiarmid Institute) makes quantum dots.
  • Medical scientist (Prof Kenji Yamamoto, International Medical Centre of Japan) carries out toxicity testing.
  • Biochemist (Thomas Backstrom, Malaghan Institute) looks at which antibodies and drug molecules to use.
  • Theoretical physicist (Shaun Hendy, Industrial Research Ltd) creates computer simulations to make predictions about quantum dot structures and properties.
    Published 28 May 2008, Updated 20 November 2014 Referencing Hub articles