Great importance is placed on the use of metals to make things like mobile phones, buildings and cars, but they are increasingly playing a larger role in the healthcare space.

In fact, humans actually contain a fair bit of metal themselves. While it is in a very different form to what is found in the ground, resources like cobalt and iron play a key role in the human body.

Cobalt is important for making red blood cells and is found in vitamin B12, while iron is crucial to the transport of oxygen to the body’s tissues. Other metals like zinc and magnesium also play a key role in keeping the body healthy.

And we all know lithium was used as medication to treat mental disorders long before it went into batteries.

But metals, and gas resources, are fast finding their way into medical solutions.

Copper, for example, has good anti-microbial properties. So much so that researchers have discovered that it can in fact kill COVID-19 within minutes of the bug landing on it, whereas the disease can survive for days on surfaces like glass and stainless steel.

One study, undertaken in 2015 by the US Department of Defense, showed copper alloys installed in several hospitals could slash infection rates by nearly 60 per cent.

According to market research provider Research and Markets, the global healthcare market reached nearly $US8.5 trillion in 2018, having grown at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.3 per cent since 2014.

But it still has plenty more room for growth with predictions it will grow at a CAGR of 8.9 per cent to nearly $11.9tn ($13.4 trillion) by 2022. And those predictions were published before the COVID-19 pandemic occurred.

“Going forward, faster economic growth, technological developments and the increasing prevalence of diseases due to rising busy and sedentary lifestyles will drive the growth,” Research and Markets said mid-last year.


3D-printed copper killing COVID-19

Australian company SPEE3D says it has successfully developed and tested a fast and affordable way to 3D print anti-microbial copper onto metal surfaces.

360Biolabs tested the effectiveness of SPEE3D’s ACTIVAT3D copper on live SARS-CoV-2 in its laboratory.

SPEE3D said the results showed that 96 per cent of the virus was killed in two hours and 99.2 per cent of the virus was killed in five hours, while stainless steel showed no reduction in the same timeframe.

Stainless steel is currently the material typically used in hygiene environments like hospitals and schools.

SPEE3D CEO Byron Kennedy said the company had focused on developing a solution that could be rapidly deployed and was more efficient than printing solid copper parts from scratch.

“The lab results show ACTIVAT3D copper surfaces behave much better than traditional stainless, which may offer a promising solution to a global problem,” he said.

“The technology can be used globally addressing local requirements, be they in hospitals, schools, on ships or shopping centres.”

The SPEE3D process uses about 100 grams of copper for a door handle coating and the printers are already commercially available.

Compared to traditional copper casting, this new process is much quicker and cheaper.

“Casting copper is very expensive, you can’t do one offs or small runs and there are long run times,” SPEE3D marketing manager Aerin Langworthy told Stockhead.

“These handles are coated in 4 minutes at a cost of $50 to $100 each.”


Gold can help beat cancer

Meanwhile, gold has proven useful in the treatment of cancer.

Back in late February, University of Queensland researchers revealed that a novel blood test that used gold nanoparticles to detect cancer had also been shown to identify signals released by cancer cells which could result in earlier diagnosis and better treatment.

The nanotechnology can detect and monitor cancer-derived extracellular vesicles (EVs) in the bloodstream and also track critical changes during and after treatment.

The technology uses an electrically activated nano-fluidic chip that helps capture only cancer emitted-EVs and is coupled with a special type of gold nanoparticle attached to antibodies that stick to molecules found only on the surface of cancer EVs.

The gold nanoparticles emit a unique signal when hit with laser light and this can be used to detect an EV fingerprint specific to the patient.

The technology accurately detected cancer EVs in the blood samples taken from 23 melanoma patients, and successfully tracked how the cancer EV fingerprint changed in response to therapy for each patient.

“Our technology can reveal changes in the cancer EV fingerprint, so it could be used to quickly find out whether a therapy is working or if drug resistance is happening,” Jing Wang, a researcher at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, said.

“This could guide cancer therapy in real-time.”

Stockhead contacted the University of Queensland to find out just how much gold is used in the nanoparticles and when this particular tech could potentially be commercialised but did not receive a response by the time of publishing.


Two germ fighting metals are better than one

Researchers at Tomsk State University in Russia have worked out that using two metals is better than one.

They are using bioactive copper oxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles to increase the length of time that face masks remain effective.

Since the start of the pandemic, one of the most highly sought-after personal protection equipment items has been face masks but, according to Tomsk State University, after about two hours of use their antiviral effectiveness is significantly reduced.

“One of the ways to increase antiviral efficacy is to impart antiseptic properties to polymer medical materials, including fibrous ones, by modifying them with bioactive nanoparticles of copper oxide and zinc oxide,” the university said.

“Such nanoparticles deposited on fibres exhibit antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties and also, unlike silver nanoparticles proposed by other researchers, are less expensive and not cytotoxic.”

The university said using bioactive copper oxide nanoparticles in the filtering material will give disposable respirator masks powerful biocidal properties without changing their barrier properties.


Hydrogen tech to fight COVID-19

The human body needs both hydrogen and oxygen to function and Cairns-based Hydrogen Technologies says it has developed a tech that can help those functions in patients infected with COVID-19.

About 62 per cent of all the atoms in most animal species are hydrogen atoms, with 24 per cent oxygen and another 12 per cent carbon.

Hydrogen Technologies’ tech works to increase the molecular hydrogen levels in the body.

According to the company, it helps open the airways of Coronavirus victims by reducing the inflammation it causes in the lungs.

And Hydrogen Technologies says it also assists the immune system and dramatically reduces the oxidative stress in the body that if not addressed, can lead to multiple organ disfunction and failure.

“The Chinese government protocol suggested that one of the primary points of treatment is the inhalation of molecular hydrogen and oxygen gas being a 66 per cent, 33 per cent blend of gases which is exactly what these machines produce,” co-founder Jim Wilson said.

“We are primarily shipping to the US and Europe but even to places around the world that we didn’t even know existed until now.

“We are flat out and struggling to keep up with demand. Obviously, there is immense pressure in countries such as Italy, Spain and the US at the moment so this is where we are finding our biggest demand is coming from.”