To Douglas Wells, a professor of physics at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, four newly discovered chemical elements could be powerful tools in the struggle to treat cancer and other serious diseases.
Discovered by teams of scientists in Japan, Russia, and the United States, the new elements were confirmed by The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry this week.
The new elements fill in four gaps in the seventh row of the periodic table, completing the current version of the chemical chart of elements.
“From a chemist’s standpoint, this is the Holy Grail,” Wells said.
The four new super heavy elements, which occupy slots 113, 115, 117, and 118 on the periodic table, were synthesized in particle accelerators, a favorite tool of discovery among nuclear physicists.
The former director of the particle accelerator at Idaho State University, Wells explained in simple terms how the science works.
“Imagine if I smash two hunks of Play-Doh together really hard,” Wells said, twining his fingers. “There might be fragments going around in various directions, but there will be some central part that sticks together. That’s what these guys are … except a nuclear version.”
Jan Puszynski, a chemical engineer and the vice president for research at the School of Mines, said the use of particle accelerators to generate the new elements means they are man-made and do not occur in nature.
“I would argue that’s not true,” Wells said, emphasizing he hasn't actually discussed the topic with Puszynski. “Where you’re going to find them, if they exist in nature, is in supernova explosions, which are hard to get close to. But if our models are correct, they occur there as well.”
What the two colleagues do agree on is that if there are any practical uses for the new elements, they probably will be found in the field of nuclear medicine.
To understand why, Wells, a specialist in nuclear-medicine research, went back to the very beginnings of the periodic table.
“When the chemical table was first discovered, there was a hole in it right there,” he said, his finger landing near the center of the chemical chart on element Technetium 99. “That’s because there’s no naturally occurring Technetium on Earth."
Technetium 99 was first synthesized in a particle accelerator in 1925, according to a history of the element published on Harvard University's website.
“Now it’s responsible for about 85 percent of all nuclear-medicine procedures,” Wells said. “That’s about 17 million people a year.”
Like Technetium 99, the four new elements are radioactive, and can perhaps, in Wells’ view, be put to use as effective treatments against such diseases as cancer or HIV.
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As they decay, Wells explained, radioactive atoms continuously emit what are called alpha particles, composed of two protons bonded with two neutrons.
Alpha particles can damage diseased cells. The more protons a radioactive atom has, the more alpha particles it can produce, and therefore, the more damage it can do.
The newly discovered radioactive element Ununoctium (Uuo) has 118 protons, more than any element discovered thus far. (Each of the four new elements has a similarly difficult-to-pronounce name beginning with U, clunky monikers that are temporary as scientists consider their official names.)
Back in the micro-world, the challenge, Wells said, is for pharmacists and molecular biologists to find effective ways to get radioactive atoms inside diseased cells so they can tear the cells apart from the inside, leaving healthy cells intact.
“If an atom is in there, and it emits an alpha particle, it won’t even exit the cell, so its short range makes it very attractive,” Wells said. “It’s like a nuclear scalpel.”
The subject of much research, such injections, if perfected, could make the new elements ideal candidates for treating diseased cells, Wells said.
Puszynski is more skeptical.
The new elements are unstable, and once they are created in a particle accelerator, they tend not to last very long. Their lifespan, Puszynski said, can be counted in hours, even seconds in some cases.
The use of particle accelerators to create them also makes the new elements potentially very expensive to mass produce.
“You have to be careful with these materials because they are super heavy elements, so they might have other effects,” Puszynski added. “They might be bad for your body.”
Puszynski said he thinks useful applications may be created for the new elements, but only time will tell.
Meanwhile, as a scientist, he is eager to see what happens next with the new discoveries. “It filled the gaps in the table we had, but we don’t know what else is ahead of us,” Puszynski said. “That’s the beauty of research.”
The last time scientists identified new elements — flerovium (Fl) and livermorium (Lv) — was five years ago.
Wells said he thinks there will be another row of elements to add to the table someday, likely ending somewhere within the range of atomic weight 126.
“The chemists have yet to be persuaded that there is anything beyond (118),” he said. “The onus is on the physicists to show there’s anything heavier.”