A rare cancer-busting mineral which has only ever been found in space has been discovered growing on plants – in the UK.
The mineral, called vaterite, has so far only been traced on a few sea creatures, rocks and meteorites from outer space.
But it has now appeared on alpine plants – part of a collection called European Saxifraga – at Cambridge’s Botanic Garden.
The incredible discovery could be groundbreaking for cancer sufferers as the substance has special properties that help specialist drugs work more effectively.
A Botanic Garden spokeswoman said: “Vaterite is a potentially superior carrier for medications due to its high loading capacity, high uptake by cells and its solubility properties that enable it to deliver a sustained and targeted release of therapeutic medicines to patients.
“For instance, vaterite nanoparticles loaded with anti-cancer drugs appear to offload the drug slowly only at sites of cancers, and therefore limit the negative side effects of the drug.”
“Naturally occurring vaterite is rarely found on Earth. Small amounts of vaterite crystals have been found in some sea and freshwater crustaceans, bird eggs, the inner ears of salmon, meteorites and rocks.
“This is the first time that the rare and unstable mineral has been found in such a large quantity, and the first time it has been found to be associated with plants.”
The mineral is part of a protective silvery-white crust that forms on the leaves of a number of the garden’s alpines.
Scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory made the discovery alongside experts from the Botanic Garden, as part of a research project that is probing the inner workings of the garden’s plants using powerful new microscopes.
Dr Raymond Wightman, the lab’s microscopy core facility manager, said: “Biochemists are working to synthetically manufacture vaterite as it has potential for use in drug delivery, but it is not easy to make.
“Other potential uses of vaterite include improving the cements used in orthopaedic surgery, and as an industrial application improving the quality of papers for inkjet printing by reducing the lateral spread of ink.”
Dr Wightman said vaterite was often associated with outer space and had been detected in planetary objects in the Solar System and meteorites.
He said: “Vaterite is not very stable in the Earth’s humid atmosphere as it often reverts to more common forms of calcium carbonate, such as calcite. This makes it even more remarkable that we have found vaterite in such large quantities on the surface of plant leaves.”
He is working on the project along with the garden’s alpine and woodland supervisor, Paul Aston, and colleague Simon Wallis.
Mr Wallis, who is also chairman of the international Saxifrage Society, said: “We started by sampling as wide a range of saxifrage species as possible from our collection.
“The microscope analysis of the plant material came up with the exciting discovery that some plants were exuding vaterite from “chalk glands” on the margins of their leaves.”
Mr Aston added these initial discoveries were just the start.
“He said: “We expect that there may be other plants that also produce vaterite and have special leaf anatomies that have evolved in harsh environments like alpine regions.”