WASHINGTON MONTHLY, NOV, 2000
One of these days, gold may save your life. In ancient times, the glittering metal that never tarnished was believed to bring good fortune, to ward off evil spirits, to help heal the sick. Today, increasingly, it is healing the sick – and saving lives.
The use of gold in modern medicine began around 1890, when the distinguished German bacteriologist Robert Koch discovered that compounds made with gold inhibited growth of the bacillus that caused tuberculosis. His work was honored with the Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Since then, medical uses of gold have expanded greatly. It is used in surgery to patch damaged blood vessels, nerves, bones and membranes. And it is used in the treatment of several forms of cancer.
Injection of microscopic gold pellets helps to retard prostate cancer in men. Women with ovarian cancer are treated with colloidal gold. And gold vapor lasers seek out and destroy cancerous cells without harming their healthy neighbors.
Surgeons use gold instruments to clear coronary arteries. Gold-coated lasers give new life to patients with once inoperable heart conditions and tumors. Biochemists use gold to form compounds to create lifesaving drugs.
Gold also has become an important biomedical tool for scientists studying why the piece of gold, scientists can follow its movement through the body. And because it is readily visible under an electron microscope, scientists can now see whether and where a reaction takes place in an individual cell.
Some researchers are placing gold on DNA to study the hybrid genetic material in cells. Others are using it to determine how cells respond to toxins and physical stress. Still others are studying the chemical changes that occur in normally functioning cells.
A new lightweight laser designed by the military, using gold-plated contacts, enables medics to seal wounds in the battlefield and improves survival chances for the seriously wounded. In hospitals, this new design brings lasers to critically injured emergency room patients, saving precious minutes – perhaps lives.
What is it about gold that makes it so valuable in modern medicine? First, it is very safe to use. It is biologically benign. It does not corrode. It is unaffected by moisture, oxygen or ordinary acids. It is one of the most efficient conductors of electricity. Its density enables it to be seen under electron microscopes. And though virtually indestructible, it is a soft metal, easy to work with, shape, flatten or draw out into microscopic strands.
Our ancestors who first discovered this precious metal in river beds more than 5,000 years ago thought it had magical healing properties. Today, as we begin the 21st century, scientists and doctors around the world are using gold for the research and treatment of critical conditions. Every day, the unique qualities of gold are helping millions of people live longer, healthier and more productive lives.
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