Tea Leaf Nanoparticles Destroy Up to 80 Percent of Lung Cancer Cells

When you think of tea leaves, you probably picture crystal balls and tarot cards, or perhaps a good book and a slice of cake. You probably don't think about futuristic-sounding cancer treatments.

However, scientists from Wales and India used tea leaves to make nanoparticles which destroyed up to 80 percent of lung cancer cells in a study. Findings were published in Applied Nano Materials.

The team was surprised by the results, which they discovered while testing a new way of making an especially small kind of nanoparticle.

Scientists have been studying nanoparticles, tiny dots thousands of times thinner than an inch, in medicine for a number of years. Very small "quantum dots" are relatively new players in this field, measuring less than 10 nanometers in diameter. According to the United States National Nanotechnology Initiative, that's less than the width of four strands of DNA. Ten nanometers is about the length your fingernail will grow in 10 seconds.

Read more: What is ocular melanoma? Doctors find extremely rare eye cancer in groups across two states

Scientists thought quantum dots might be useful for computers, solar cells and medical applications, but they're often made from chemicals with toxic side effects. Nontoxic tea leaves—which are bursting with antioxidants, vitamins and amino acids—may be a safer base ingredient for quantum dots.

5_21_Tea Leaves
A woman picks tea leaves at the Dagapur Tea Estate on the outskirts of Siliguri, India, on July 26, 2005. Rupak De Chowduri/Reuters

The team mixed the leaves with certain chemical compounds and left them to brew. After a period of incubation, the mixture yielded quantum dots. Those dots, it turned out, were rather potent.

When introduced to lung cancer cells, they seeped into their tiny pores, destroying up to 80 percent of the cells.

"Our research confirmed previous evidence that tea leaf extract can be a nontoxic alternative to making quantum dots using chemicals," Swansea University's Sudhagar Pitchaimuthu, a lead researcher on the project, said in a statement. "The real surprise, however, was that the dots actively inhibited the growth of the lung cancer cells. We hadn't been expecting this."

Read more: New chemicals that could help prevent skin cancer are languishing in FDA purgatory

Quantum dots are a "very promising" route toward new treatments, Pitchaimuthu said. But it will be a long way off before these kinds of treatments reach patients. Pitchaimuthu's research was performed in a lab, not in a human body, and it will surely be a long journey from petri dish to pharmacy.

Next, Pitchaimuthu and his team will scale up their quantum dot production. "We would like to set up a 'quantum dot factory' which will allow us to explore more fully the ways in which they can be used," he said in a statement.

Beyond cancer treatments, he added, the dots may one day be used in sun creams and even antimicrobial operating theater paint.