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Alberto Samayoa

Introduction to Nanotechnology

Dr. Wesley C. Sanders


Gold Nanoparticles Fight Cancer and Improve Vaccines

What are Gold Nanoparticles?

Britannica defines “nanoparticle” as “an ultrafine unit with dimensions measured in

nanometers (nm; 1 nm = 10−9 meter). Nanoparticles are submicroscopic in size and exist in the

natural world and are also created as a result of human activities.”

Gold is an element used in jewelry, coins, dentistry, and even some medicines. Bulk

gold is considered an inert material in that it doesn’t corrode or tarnish. Gold’s capability to

resist corrosion as well as its high electrical and thermal conductivity make it useful for

forming contacts in electronic devices.

Gold has been used in various medical treatments over the centuries without harmful

affects. It was therefore natural for researchers to look to gold nanoparticles for medical

applications rather than using elements such as platinum, which can be toxic. Forming gold

into nanoparticles allows scientists to use gold in areas that are too small for bulk gold to reach

and creates exciting new capabilities for scientific research and applications.

Examples of Gold Nanoparticles Throughout History:

The formation of colloidal gold or “nanogold” has been known to man since ancient

times, although the process was not fully understood until 1990.
Zeeya Merali, the author of an article entitled “This 1,600-Year-Old Goblet Shows

That the Romans Were Nanotechnology Pioneers” in the September 2013 issue of the

Smithsonian Magazine described the process. Her article featured a jade green colored glass

chalice called the Lycurgus Cup that could (with a little manipulation) also be perceived as a

blood-red color. Ms. Merali described the process as follows; “The ancient nanotech works

something like this: When hit with light, electrons belonging to the metal flecks vibrate in

ways that alter the color depending on the observer’s position.” Armed with this knowledge,

this ancient procedure has lead to a precise technology that helps diagnose human disease.

In 1857, one of the most influential scientists in history, Michael Faraday, created the

first gold nanoparticles in his famous experiment of colloidal “ruby gold.” These early

experiments in colloidal gold launched what would eventually become the fields of

nanoscience and nanotechnology.

Unique Properties

Plasmonic Properties in Bulk Scale v. Nanoscale

Gold at the Bulk Scale

Gold is a noble metal, similar to silver and platinum, that exhibits plasmonic

properties. When the surface of a noble metal is hit with incident light, electrons which are

situated on the surface begin to oscillate. This is known as the Surface Plasmonic Resonance

(SPR). It is because of these plasmonic properties that noble metals such as gold, silver and

platinum absorb and reflect light and are therefore widely used in jewelry. Plasmonic

properties arise due to noble metals having delocalized electrons on the surface with the

benefit of enhanced electrical and thermal conductivity. The atom’s nucleus is made up of

protons and neutrons and the electrons flow freely and spin around the nucleus in different

orbitals. There are many orbitals and delocalized electrons in bulk form noble metals which

overlap and form metallic bonding between the atoms.

Gold at the Nanoscale

Reflection does not occur in particles which are smaller than the wavelength of the

incident light. However, there are still interactions between nanoparticles such as light

absorbsion and light scattering. Light absorbsion occurs when electrons oscillate at the same

frequency as the absorbed light which causes a dipole moment around the gold nanoparticles.

The oscillating dipole is known as a localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR) and

electromagnetic radiation is released. Secondary electromagnetic radiation released by the

nanoparticles is called scattered light.

Conversion of Wavelengths into Heat

Gold nanoparticles have the capability to convert certain wavelengths of light into heat.

As with all metals, gold contains electrons that are not tied to a particular atom but free to

move throughout the metal. These electrons help to conduct a current when a voltage is

applied across the conductor. Depending on the size and shape of the nanoparticles, these free

electrons will absorb the energy from a particular wavelength of light, at the right wavelength

to make the cloud of free electrons on the surface of the gold nanoparticle resonate.

It turns out that two types of gold nanoparticle shapes are more efficient in converting

light into heat. First are gold nanorods. These solid gold cylinders have a diameter as small as

10 nm. By using nanorods with different combinations of diameter and length, researchers can

change the wavelength of light that the nanorod absorbs. Second are nanospheres which

consist of a gold coating over a silicon core. Utilizing nanospheres with variations in the

thickness of the gold coating and the diameter of the silica core, researchers can change the

wavelength of the light that the nanosphere absorbs.

Researchers are using both nanorods and nanospheres to develop methods for localized

heat treatment of diseased regions of the body. This method is called hyperthermia therapy.

Self Assembled Monolayers and Functionalization with Alkanethiols

Gold nanoparticles can be functionalized with a wide range of materials using self

assembled monolayers. This is a phenomenon in which a number of independent molecules

suspended in an isotropic state come together to form an ordered aggregate. These can be used

for a couple of purposes; first, as a protection and resistance to corrosion and second, to give

functionality to nanomaterials.

Gold is used because it is known for being unreactive and isn’t sensitive to air or light.

But gold does like to form bonds with itself. To ensure that the particles don’t clump together,

their surfaces have to be covered with a layer of protective molecules. Sulphur is one of a few

elements that gold happily bonds with, so Sulphur-containing groups are often used for this

protective coating.

Alkanethiols are molecules with three main features. The thiol is the Sulphur group

that attaches the molecule to the surface of the gold. A carbon chain is the body that is

connected after the sulfur group. The carbon chain helps the molecules to self assemble using

London Dispersion Forces. This is a temporary attractive force that results when the electrons

in two adjacent atoms occupy positions that make the atoms form temporary dipoles. The last

section after the carbon chain is the head or the functional group which is a collection of atoms

that have a predicable chemical behavior.

What about cancer and how do Gold nanoparticles help combat it?

Cancer is a complex disease that involves many molecular and cellular processes that

result in a gradual accumulation of genetic changes on specific cells. Over time, damage may

occur from environmental factors or defective genes. When damage occurs in the vital area of

the Adenomatous Polyposis Coli gene (APC), it is an “Anti-oncogene” which is known as a

tumor suppressing gene. In a normal healthy APC gene, proteins are produced that inhibits cell

growth. However, in a cell that has mutated, uncontrolled cell growth can multiply. These cells

eventually form a small tumor and are able to attack the immune system by veiling

themselves. They grow undetected by the white blood cells. As the tumor continues to grow,

even more mutations can occur and can coax blood vessels to supply the tumor with nutrients

so it can spread or become metastatic and affect other areas of the body.

For the past one hundred years the way that we combated cancer has been through

surgically removal, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. Although Chemotherapy and

radiation destroy cancer cells, the problem that arises with these methods is because they also

destroy normal cells in its wake. These cells can include the protective lining of the mouth and

the gastrointestinal tract, can cause painful sores, vomiting, diarrhea, nausea even permanent

complications like sterility. Treatments to battle against cancer have come with a plethora of

side effects in these traditional methods causing medical researchers to search other alternative

and more promising advancements to treating cancer with Nanotechnology.

Applications and Benefits of Gold Nanoparticles:

Gold Nanoparticles Provide Immunology Improvements

“Immunology” is defined in the Encarta Dictionary as “the scientific study of the way

the immune system works in the body, including allergies, resistance to disease, and

acceptance or rejection of foreign tissue.”

In March 1, 2017, an article appeared in the US National Library of Medicine, National

Institutes of Health entitled “Immunological Properties of Gold Nanoparticles.” The authors,

Lev A. Dykman and Nikolai Khlebtsov, wrote an extremely comprehensive treatise about

recent advances in gold nanoparticles. Even though their introduction is filled with medical

terminology, it is understandable by “arm-chair” scientists. Their description is as follows:

“Gold nanoparticles (GNPs) have attracted significant interest as a novel platform in

nanobiotechnology and biomedicine because of their convenient surface bioconjugation with

molecular probes and their remarkable optical and immunological properties. Recently

published examples include applications of GNPs to genomics, biosensorics, immunoassays,

clinical chemistry, detection and control of microorganisms, cancer cell photothermolysis,

targeted delivery of drugs or other substances, and optical imaging and monitoring of

biological cells and tissues. In particular, they serve as carriers for the delivery of drugs,

genetic materials, and antigens.”

These biological advancements to improve patients’ ability to fight their own diseases

are awesome to imagine.

Improved Vaccinations

In the Molecules Open Access Journals dated May 22, 2017, Sonia Alexandra Correia

Carabineiro wrote an article, “Applications of Gold Nanoparticles in Nanomedicine: Recent

Advances in Vaccines.” Due to their extremely small size, gold nanoparticles can penetrate

human and blood cells and can target specific cells. This has allowed medical professionals

to improve the development process for better vaccines for a myriad of illnesses including

cancer, HIV, encephalitis, respiratory issues and hepatitis and even animal conditions such

hoof-and-mouth disease.

Ms. Carabineiro described the benefits of using gold nanoparticles in field of

vaccinations as follows: “Gold nanoparticles, in general, have remarkably high surface-to-

volume ratio, are biocompatible and inert, and can be easily functionalized with several

molecules; thus, they can also play an important role in the vaccine field as adjuvants,

reducing toxicity, enhancing immunogenic activity, and providing stability of vaccine in

storage, and have great potential as carriers for the development of a great diversity of fully

synthetic vaccines.”


The Romans’ Lycurgus Cup shows that man’s interest in nanotechnology goes back

more than 1,600 years. Two examples of the progress scientists have made have been featured

in this paper. First, in halting the development of cancer. In recent years, scientists discovered

that cancer cells grow more quickly than healthy cells and have created procedures that kill

cancer by shining light on gold nanoparticles into the nucleus of the cancer cells. This precise

technology works with the cell’s DNA and causes the cells to stop dividing and the cancer

dies. Second, is in developing more effective vaccines using gold nanoparticles which stops

these diseases in their tracks.

The future progress towards reducing and then alleviating these deadly diseases that

plague mankind will be wonderful to see.

Works Cited

Helen Jarvie, Peter Dobson and Stephen King. “Nanoparticle” Britannica (Updated 10-25-18)

Essays, UK. “Gold: History, Properties and Nanoscale Analysis” (November 2013)

Retrieved from


Zeeya Merali. “This 1600-Year-Old Goblet Shows that the Romans Were Nanotechnology

Pioneers” Smithsonian Magazine. (September 2013)

Retrieved from


Lev A. Dykman and Nikolai G. Khlebtsov. “Immunological Properties of Gold

Nanoparticles” US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (3-1-17)

Retrieved from

Sonia Alexandra Correia Carabineiro. “Applications of Gold Nanoparticles in Nanomedicine:

Recent Advances in Vaccines” Molecules Open Access Journals. (5-22-17)

Retrieved from

David Terraso. “Using Gold Nanoparticles to Hit Cancer Where It Hurts” ScienceDaily. (2-18-


Retrieved from