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Precious Metals in Medicine
Precious metals are naturally lustrous elements that have a high economic value. Gold, silver, and platinum are the best-known precious metals and are used in jewelry and objets d’art. Historically, gold and silver were also used as currency.
Unlike such trace elements as zinc
, copper, iodine, and others, there is no recognized need in human nutrition for precious metals.
Yet these elements have a therapeutic value under certain circumstances.
History of Precious Metals in Medicine
Metals have a history of use in ancient Indian (Ayurvedic), Chinese, and Egyptian medicine. In Ayurveda, crushed gold is prepared with herbs and other materials to address such conditions as infertility, erectile dysfunction, premature ejaculation, muscle wasting, and more. Silver preparations were believed to increase stamina and strength, reduce heartburn or fever, and act as a disinfectant by helping to kill bacteria. Silver solutions have antimicrobial properties and can be applied topically to treat some temporary skin infections.1
“A new era of metal-based drugs started in the 1960s, heralded by the discovery of potent platinum-based complexes, commencing with cisplatin, which are effective anticancer chemotherapeutic drugs,” C. I. Yeo and colleagues observed in a recent review titled “Gold-Based Medicine: A Paradigm Shift in Anti-Cancer Therapy?”2
has been used to treat advanced non-small cell lung cancer, as well as testicular, ovarian, and other cancers. It’s been noted that the use of chemotherapies alone has likely reached a plateau in regard to effectiveness and combining the drugs with newer targeted treatments could increase patient survival.3
Precious Metal: Gold
What is Gold’s Role in Medicine?
“Research into gold-based drugs for a range of human diseases has seen a revival in recent years,” note G. Faa and colleagues in a 2018 review. “Au(I) and Au(III) compounds have been reintroduced in clinical practice for targeting the cellular components involved in the onset and progression of viral and parasitic diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, and cancer.”4
The target of gold compounds in cancer does not appear to be the cells’ DNA, as in the case of platinum compounds, but the mitochondria within the cells.5 Other mechanisms include cell cycle arrest, and more.2
Toxicological risk assessment of gold nanoparticle exposure concluded that “taking low human exposure into account, elemental gold via the oral route is not considered to pose a health concern to humans in general.”6
Precious Metal: Silver
What Is the Role of Silver in Medicine?
Silver has been used in wound healing for centuries and was likely to be the most important antimicrobial treatment prior to the antibiotic era
.7 Silver is currently a component of topical dressings used in the prevention or treatment of bacterial infection and as a treatment for such conditions as plantar warts.8 Silver nanoparticles have shown antibacterial activity against Helicobacter pylori,the organism that causes stomach ulcers.9
The use of silver in antimicrobial therapy has declined over time due to the identification of a few silver-resistant strains. However, indiscriminate antibiotic use has led to the evolution of multi-drug-resistant “superbugs,” which has resulted in a resurgence of silver nanoparticles as the subject of antimicrobial research.10 In a 2018 review, A. C. Burdusel and colleagues report that “silver nanoparticles proved to have genuine features and impressive potential for the development of novel antimicrobial agents, drug-delivery formulations, detection and diagnosis platforms, biomaterial and medical device coatings, tissue restoration and regeneration materials, complex healthcare condition strategies, and performance-enhanced therapeutic alternatives.”11
Therapeutic applications of silver compounds such as silver nanoparticles should not be conflated with “colloidal silver.” Some alternative health practitioners have advocated for the use of colloidal silver preparations for various conditions, but there is no sound scientific evidence supporting their use.
Precious Metal: Platinum
What is the Role of Platinum in Medicine?
It has been observed that “one simple metal complex revolutionized the treatment of cancer in the latter half of the 20th century.”12
The platinum compound known as cisplatin was used as early as 1845 when it was known as Peyrone’s chloride. Its antitumor properties were accidently discovered in the 1960s when bacteria exposed to platinum-based complexes failed to undergo cell division. For many years, platinum therapies have been considered the “gold” standard of cancer treatment. As noted, the success of currently available chemotherapies, including those based on platinum, has likely plateaued, and newer therapies may be more promising.
Precious metals are highly valued in jewelry and art, but their greatest value is in their benefit to human lives. The contribution of these metals to the well-being of humanity indeed renders them deserving of the appellation “precious.”
- Lansdown AB et al. Curr Probl Dermatol. 2006;33:17-34.
- Yeo CI et al. Molecules. 2018 Jun 11;23(6)1410.
- Baxevanos P et al. Ann Transl Med. 2018 Apr;6(8):139.
- Faa G et al. Curr Med Chem. 2018;25(1):75-84.
- Maia PI et al. Future Med Chem. 2014 Sep;6(13):1515-36.
- Hadrup N et al. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2015 Jul;72(2):216-21.
- Barras F et al. Antibiotics (Basel). 2018 Aug 22;7(3).
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