SCOTTISH scientists have turned tiny specks of a rare precious metal into miniature chemotherapy-producing “factories” in a new technology that could improve treatment for prostate cancer patients.

Researchers at the Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre at the University of Edinburgh and the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow have shown the technique, using minute fragments of palladium, can kill prostate cancer cells in the lab.

They say their approach could improve treatment for some patients by providing a way to treat the disease locally with reduced side effects.

Every year around 3300 men in Scotland are diagnosed with prostate cancer and more than 900 die from it.

However, using palladium – an element that can activate some chemical reactions – could help researchers develop a new way to treat it.

The team modified a type of chemotherapy called doxorubicin with a chemical “mask” to keep it inactive – a prodrug – until it comes in contact with palladium. In zebrafish, they showed the prodrug did not cause toxicity in the heart, a common side effect of the drug that limits its use.

They then showed that tiny fragments of palladium could switch on the modified drug into the active form of doxorubicin, which killed prostate cancer cells in dishes.

Then, using ultrasound imaging, they implanted the palladium devices into prostate tumours in mice, which showed the implants were safe and remained at the site of the tumour.

When the tumours were removed from the mice and analysed, the team found the palladium devices maintained the ability to activate the prodrug and trigger cancer cell death – highlighting the possibility that the approach could work for an extended period.

Lead scientist Professor Asier Unciti-Broceta, from the Cancer Research UK Edinburgh Centre, said they were all excited by the development.

“There’s more work to do before we can use this in patients, but the results of this study are an encouraging first step,” he said. “Our hope is that one day a device like this could be implanted in humans to deliver chemotherapy directly into tumours and reduce harmful side effects to the rest of the body.”

The team said that because the technology could allow doctors to deliver anti-cancer drugs locally into a tumour, it could reduce the need for surgery to remove the prostate in some patients by enabling their cancer to be treated more precisely.

Professor Hing Leung, from the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute in Glasgow, said: “For some patients found to have early stage cancer – that is cancer fully within the prostate gland – they may elect to defer treatment but have regular tests to check on their cancer.

“If there was any suggestion that their cancer is growing they can then consider treatment, surgery or radiotherapy. This avoids over-treatment. If proven in people, this new technology could treat prostate cancer locally before it progresses, by delivering anti-cancer drugs directly into the tumour so that the cancer cells could be killed earlier.”

Retired IT consultant Keith Roxburgh, 59, from Edinburgh, was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012.

He noticed something was wrong on holiday in Menorca, but he delayed going to his doctor: “In my heart I knew something was wrong, so I wasn’t shocked to find out I had prostate cancer. Further tests showed it had spread to my spine and bones.”

In a clinical trial he was given a drug alongside hormone treatment to slow down bone thinning and had chemotherapy and radiotherapy. His cancer is now stable and managed with hormone treatment.

Roxburgh welcomed the new study, adding: “Without research, we won’t get control over this horrible disease.”

Dr Justine Alford from Cancer Research UK said: “We look forward to the next stages of this research, where hopefully the potential of this promising approach will be demonstrated further.”

The study was funded by Cancer Research UK and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).