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Eating gold to treat inflammatory bowel disease

Now all of your meals can be fancy.

By Cassidy Ward
3D render of gold nuggets in a gold panning pan.

The 2008 Hellboy sequel, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, pits the members of the B.P.R.D. against an ancient foe for the control of a golden robot army built specifically for the destruction of humanity. Spoiler alert: Hellboy wins the day and control of the army, which he subsequently cedes power over, saving humanity once again.

With any luck, there isn’t actually an ancient golden army waiting to awaken and seek vengeance on our species. However, science has constructed a much smaller golden army which we control, and which has the power to combat disease in the digestive tract. It’s estimated that over 3 million adults in the United States, roughly 1.3% of the overall population, suffer from some form of inflammatory bowel disease. Those diseases, which include Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis, have no cure and cause considerable distress to those who must endure them. In extreme cases, they can even lead to death.

It's understood that patients with IBD have elevated levels of reactive oxygen species in the gastrointestinal system which are a likely contributor of symptoms. Oxidative stress caused by reactive oxygen species — a type of free radical — causes damage to DNA, RNA, and proteins in the cells, exacerbating the diseases.

At present, there are no known cures for either Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis, but they can be treated to reduce symptoms. That typically involves administering drugs like immunomodulators or corticosteroids. It also involves performing surgeries to remove damaged parts of the digestive system. A recent study, however, found an alternative solution and it involves eating gold.

Researchers from Sun Yat-Sen University and Anhui Medical University synthesized tiny gold nanoparticles to see if they were capable of holding the line against reactive oxygen species in the gut. Their findings were published in the journal Fundamental Research.

While gold isn’t a typical part of the shopping list, this isn’t the first time it has been intentionally ingested. That’s because gold is chemically inert and passes through the body without being absorbed. That makes it safe for consumption if you want to add a little flair to your dinner or desert, even if it doesn’t add any nutritional value. This new study finds that while it is chemically inert, it does have some interactions inside the digestive system which prove to be beneficial for individuals with IBD.

Typically, experimental treatments don’t go directly to human trials and must first be tested in animals. It turns out that inflammatory bowel disease also impacts rodents, giving researchers a ready test bed for their potential new treatments. In experiments, scientists orally administered gold nanoclusters to mice suffering from colitis and waited to see what happened. Incredibly, they didn’t have to wait long.

Observations confirmed that gold nanoclusters are effective at eliminating some reactive oxygen species including ABTS radicals, superoxide free radicals, and hydroxyl free radicals. Moreover, the presence of the gold increased the expression of antioxidant enzymes and inhibited inflammatory cytokines. They also interrupted the inflammatory circuit of IBD. All told, the ingestible gold particles dialed down the contributors of IBD while facilitating some beneficial processes, and it happened quickly.

Observations of the mouse gastrointestinal tracts confirmed a reduction in inflammation within 24 hours of ingesting the gold particles. In addition to being effective, the treatment has other benefits over conventional methods. Contrary to common sense, these gold nanoparticles are more affordable than other medications, while also being more stable and easier to synthesize and store.

Provided these results hold steady in humans as well as they do in mice, eating a little gold with your dinner won’t just be a show of extravagance, it might also be medically beneficial.