Rare metal from asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs could be used for the effective treatment of cancer

A 10-km wide asteroid that wiped out dinosaurs when it crashed into earth over 65 million years ago contains a rare metal — iridium – that could be used in the effective treatment of cancer, researchers have found. Scientists from the UK and China have demonstrated that iridium – a rare metal delivered to Earth by the asteroid – can be used to kill cancer without harming healthy cells.

Bildergebnis für asteroid iridium cancer

Laser-based techniques are emerging as viable treatments for cancer, targeting tumours far more precisely than the shotgun blast of radiation and chemotherapy. Researchers from the University of Warwick in the UK and Sun Yat-Sen University in China have found that laser light can turn iridium into an effective cancer killer, the newatlas.com reported.

The team created a compound of iridium and organic materials, and then introduced it into a lung cancer tumour grown in the lab. When red laser light is shone onto it through the skin, the compound is activated, converting the oxygen in the tumour into singlet oxygen, a poisonous form of the element that effectively kills the cancer cells from the inside. With cancer becoming resistant to certain treatments, it’s crucial to find new methods such as this.

Further study found that the compound was effective as it managed to penetrate every layer of the tumour. The team used ultra-high resolution mass spectrometry to highlight which proteins in the cancer cells were being targeted. They found that the compound had damaged proteins that manage heat shock stress and glucose metabolism, which are known to be crucial molecules for cancer’s survival.

When the researchers tested the iridium compound on a clump of non-cancerous tissue they found it had no effect, meaning it seems to be a highly targeted treatment that doesn’t attack healthy cells. The research was published in the journal Angewandte Chemie. Iridium is relatively rare on Earth naturally, but scientists have found a spike in the Chicxulub crater, an impact crater buried underneath the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, which is often associated with the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Bildergebnis für iridium

“The precious metal platinum is already used in more than 50 per cent of cancer chemotherapies,” says Peter Sadler, lead author of the study. “The potential of other precious metals such as iridium to provide new targeted drugs which attack cancer cells in completely new ways and combat resistance, and which can be used safely with the minimum of side-effects, is now being explored. It’s certainly now time to try to make good medical use of the iridium delivered to us by an asteroid 66 million years ago!”

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A small asteroid or comet has become the first ‘visitor’ from beyond our solar system

It is smaller than a quarter of a mile (400 meters) in diameter, but A/2017 U1 is perhaps the first known object from outside the solar system that has made its way inside. Some more data-crunching and analysis is still needed to confirm the interstellar nature of the object, which could be a comet or an asteroid.

A/2017 U1 made its closest approach to the sun Sept. 9 but was discovered Oct. 19 by Rob Weryk, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy (IfA), using the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope on Haleakala, Hawaii. It had appeared in the images taken the previous night as well, but had not been identified as a near-Earth object by the telescope’s moving object processing software.


The strange orbit of the object made Weryk realize it was very unusual, and after combining data from observations taken at the European Space Agency’s telescope on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, he understood A/2017 U1 for what it was.

NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) calculated the object’s current orbit and also projected which way it was headed. From the direction of the constellation Lyra, it approached almost perpendicular to the ecliptic — an approximate plane of the solar system in which the planets and most asteroids orbit the sun — thereby avoiding any encounters with the eight planets during its inward journey.

The object crossed the ecliptic between the sun and Mercury on Sept. 2, and under the influence of gravity during its close approach to the sun, changed its direction drastically. Making a hairpin turn under the ecliptic, it passed below Earth at a distance of about 14 million miles (24 million kilometers) Oct. 14 and has now moved back over the ecliptic. It is headed in the direction of the constellation Pegasus.

NASA also designed an animation to show the path of A/2017 U1.



When A/2017 U1 approached the solar system, it was moving at the speed of 15.8 miles a second, and as if that wasn’t fast enough already, it is now traveling at 27 miles per second, likely a result of the slingshot effect of the sun’s gravity.

“This is the most extreme orbit I have ever seen. It is going extremely fast and on such a trajectory that we can say with confidence that this object is on its way out of the solar system and not coming back,” Davide Farnocchia, a scientist at CNEOS, said in the statement. 

But the object cannot be branded interstellar until further observations confirm it to be such.

A notice by the Minor Planet Center on Wednesday which provided astrometry data from the observations, said: “Further observations of this object are very much desired.  Unless there are serious problems with much of the astrometry listed below, strongly hyperbolic orbits are the only viable solutions. … If further observations confirm the unusual nature of this orbit, this object may be the first clear case of an interstellar comet.”

And while we still don’t know if A/2017 U1 is an asteroid or a comet, it is not entirely surprising that an object from beyond the solar system should have entered it.

“We have long suspected that these objects should exist, because during the process of planet formation a lot of material should be ejected from planetary systems. What’s most surprising is that we’ve never seen interstellar objects pass through before,” Karen Meech, an astronomer at the IfA specializing in small bodies and their connection to solar system formation, said in the statement.


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