The healing power of precious metals

Monday, May 14, 2007
When we think about precious metals, we think of jewellery — necklaces, rings and bracelets. But gold, silver and platinum are good for much more than just decorative pieces.

Leila McKinnon investigates the healing power of precious metals.

Metal magic: gold

Marilyn Havaunes has been on a course of gold injections to treat her rheumatoid arthritis with rheumatologist, Dr James Bertouch.

Liquid gold injections cost $140 a go — so it's not cheap — but they've left Marilyn feeling as good as gold.

"In your wrist joints, what we can see is that there are some little holes in the wrists and they've probably lessened since the last time we actually took some x-rays. So it looks like the gold treatment that you're on is actually helping the complaint," says Dr Bertouch to Marilyn.

But exactly how does gold help?

Rheumatoid arthritis is a disease where the body's own immune system — the white cells — attack the tissues lining the joints. This makes them stiff, painful and swollen. When gold is injected it enters the attacking cells and disables them so they can no longer cause inflammation.

Amazingly, the healing power of gold is not new in modern medicine as it's been used to treat arthritis for more than 80 years.

June Hinchen has been receiving regular doses since she was diagnosed in her late thirties. Now in her golden years, she's convinced it's made a huge difference to her life.

"I think it'd be very difficult. I don't think I'd be standing up and I wouldn't be as active as I am," she says.

But before we all start our own gold rush, Marilyn and June are just some of the lucky ones as metal doesn't work on everyone.

Gold is also toxic and can have unpleasant side effects. According to Dr Bertouch it can affect the production of white corpuscles and red corpuscles from the bone marrow, so patients on gold injections need to do regular blood counts.

But when it does work, arthritics can show a remarkable turnaround in their disease, often regaining the use of their hands. So you could say this is one metal that gives arthritis sufferers back their golden touch.

Metal magic: silver

In olden days, people used silver to de-contaminate water because it kills germs.

Professor Rustum Roy, an expert in materials science at Pennsylvania State University in the United States, is going to prove it.

Leila: We're in the laboratory, what are we going to demonstrate today?
Professor Roy: We're simply going to demonstrate that silver colloids, silver sols, can kill bacteria and we're choosing E.coli, that very well-known one, as an example, just to show it really does rapidly kill bacteria.

Lab assistant Manju adds a silver solution to water contaminated with the E.coli bacteria. Within thirty seconds, the green e.coli begin to turn red — and red means dead.

In less than three minutes the entire screen is awash with red, so the silver's done an amazing job of killing off this deadly bug.

"It is being used for abrasions, cuts — any exposure which can get any kind of bacteria in there. Most of your wounds don't heal because bacteria go there and go and do other kinds of stuff," says Professor Roy.

It's widely accepted that silver is a good natural antibiotic; it's even used in a lot of bandaids. Dr Catherine Augustine is such a fan that she's been using it to treat a persistent sore on Nate the dog's leg. "The wound used to be all the way up into his shoulder area and it really started quite large and now you can see it's considerably smaller," says Dr Augustine.

Dr Augustine also uses silver for many of the family's ills — she buys silver colloids from her local health food store which are compounds of silver often suspended in water.

But authorities here and in the US caution there are no proven health benefits. In fact, if you drink large quantities of silver solution over long periods of time, your skin might turn grey.

What is proven is that silver is a great antibacterial — but it might do much, much more. Scientists are now testing silver on diseases like malaria and leprosy with encouraging results.

Metal magic: platinum

Platinum is the rarest and purest precious metal in the world and it's also been embraced by modern medicine. At the Greater Baltimore Medical Centre in Maryland, platinum has been enlisted in the fight against cancer.

Cancer specialist, Dr Gary Cohen, says it was introduced in the seventies on testicular and ovarian cancers with amazing results: "These were diseases that were uniformly fatal in young men and young women and turned them into cures and so it was really a dramatic response rate when we saw it for those diseases in the seventies."

Now platinum-based chemotherapy is used to treat colon and lung cancers as well. For Ilisa Murdick it's probably been a lifesaver, as her lung cancer was inoperable and chemotherapy the only option.

Ilisa's been in remission for a year already, but it's been a tough road back. Platinum has a list of side effects, including severe nausea and vomiting.

"At the end I dropped 20 pounds and ended up in the hospital because of the platinum, is my understanding, but it's the reason I'm here today so I'd do it all over again," says Ilisa.

How does platinum work on people like Ilisa?

"Platinum affects the DNA and RNA in cells and since cancer cells are more actively dividing than normal cells, the platinum destroys the DNA and destroys the cell," says Dr Cohen.

A new generation of drugs is now being developed that targets only the cancerous cells — not the healthy ones. That may mean fewer side effects. But in the meantime, platinum is proving truly precious to cancer sufferers.

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