Scientists from India and Swansea University in the UK have recently discovered that nanoparticles derived from tea leaves can inhibit and destroy lung cancer cells.
Although still very early days, the finding – just like many of the best scientific discoveries – was stumbled upon by accident.
The discovery is all down to weird but wonderful little things known as quantum dots, a type of nanoparticle that is just 4,000th the thickness of a human hair. They are so unimaginably small that they were able to penetrate into the nanopores of cancer cells and blast them with a cytotoxic effect, thereby killing up to 80 of percent them.
The use of nanoparticles is already being explored in numerous different fields. For example, companies are also using quantum-dot technology to provide enhanced color quality for televisions and display screens and more efficient solar panels. They are also useful for tumor imaging because their changeable structure gives them unique fluorescent properties if they’re hit with light. However, the process of making them chemically is complicated, expensive, and can have toxic side effects.
So, the team set out to create a simpler method of producing non-toxic nanoparticles, as detailed in the journal ACS Applied Nano Materials. They did this using a Camellia sinensis tea leaf extract with two other chemicals. When it came to seeing if they were any good at cancer cell bioimaging, the researchers noticed something amazing: the quantum dots appeared to be killing the cancer cells.
"Our research confirmed previous evidence that tea leaf extract can be a non-toxic alternative to making quantum dots using chemicals," Dr Sudhagar Pitchaimuthu, lead researcher on the project, explained in a statement.
“The real surprise, however, was that the dots actively inhibited the growth of the lung cancer cells. We hadn't been expecting this.”
It should be emphasized that this doesn’t mean drinking tea will prevent or "cure" lung cancer. As you’ve hopefully gathered, it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than that. It's also extremely early days for the research. Dr Pitchaimuthu told BBC News that they imagine there could be human trials in two years and, all being well, perhaps a viable treatment in a decade.
Nevertheless, this tea-infused research shows that quantum dots could hold some real promise in the field of cancer research and beyond.
“The next step is to scale up our operation, hopefully with the help of other collaborators,” added Dr Pitchaimuthu. “We want to investigate the role of tea leaf extract in cancer cell imaging, and the interface between quantum dots and the cancer cell.”
“We would like to set up a 'quantum dot factory' which will allow us to explore more fully the ways in which they can be used.”