One day, your doctor may tell you to eat two teaspoons of quantum dots and call her in the morning. Well, sort of. Quantum dots are ultra-tiny chunks of superconducting crystal, whose electronic properties can be fine-tuned depending on just how tiny they are. They're used in a variety of applications, including medical imaging. If you gobble down a bunch of quantum dots, or if a doctor injects you with them, they can enter your cells or cling to one shred of protein.

Because their size allows them to go almost anywhere in your body, quantum dots could one day help doctors track down tumors or identify problem microbes before they do any damage. The one issue? They may be toxic. Now, however, a group of scientists have evidence that eating quantum dots might be safer than you think.

Bejing medical researcher Ling Ye and colleagues published a paper over the weekend in Nature Nanotechnology where they detail experiments with quantum dots on monkeys. (Yes, monkey experimentation is problematic, but in this case it's for a good cause and the monkeys turned out OK.) One of the big problems with quantum dots is that they can break open and release toxins, especially when exposed to UV light. But as long as the quantum dots remained unbroken, Ye and colleagues found that they did not do any harm. They write:


Blood and biochemical markers remained within normal ranges following treatment, and histology of major organs after 90 days showed no abnormalities. Our results show that acute toxicity of these quantum dots in vivo can be minimal. However, chemical analysis revealed that most of the initial dose of cadmium remained in the liver, spleen and kidneys after 90 days. This means that the breakdown and clearance of quantum dots is quite slow, suggesting that longer-term studies will be required to determine the ultimate fate of these heavy metals and the impact of their persistence in primates.

So the big issue is that these quantum dots collect in organs, and could cause long-term harm. What this study shows is that medical researchers have isolated what is likely to be the biggest hurdle to adopting medical imaging tech using quantum dots, so that we can start working on resolving that issue now.

Soon, you could be getting your annual quantum dot injection so that doctors can root out cancer and other diseases before they start.


Read the scientific paper via Nature Nanotechnology