Newswise — A new weapon against cancer could be just around the corner now that a Cal Poly Pomona professor and her colleagues from Stanford, Cornell and Los Alamos National Laboratory have unlocked some of the secrets of a fickle radioactive element.

Chantal Stieber, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Cal Poly Pomona, and her peers researched the properties of actinium, which belongs to the set of elements that includes uranium and plutonium. It has been explored as a potential component of anti-cancer treatments, but its short half-life caused it to break down before it could easily be studied, preventing researchers from developing drugs that specifically target tumors without damaging other parts of the body.

To learn more about how actinium bonds with other atoms to create chemical compounds, the team made use of X-ray absorption spectroscopy, a technique in which the sample being analyzed is bombarded with powerful X-rays, causing its atoms to absorb the rays in a way that reveals information about their atomic structure.

The team found that when actinium was dissolved in a solution, it bonded to neighboring atoms differently than had been previously thought. This knowledge is vital to the production of actinium-based drugs for targeted alpha therapy — a medical treatment in which radioactive isotopes are introduced into the human body to target malignant cells without harming healthy tissue.

The team consisted of Maryline Ferrier, Enrique Batista, John Berg, Eva Birnbaum, Justin Cross, Jonathan Engle, Henry La Pierre, Stosh Kozimor and Benjamin Stein of Los Alamos National Laboratory; Juan Lezama Pacheco of Stanford University, Chantal Stieber of Cal Poly Pomona and Justin Wilson of Cornell University.

The results of their research, “Spectroscopic and computational investigation of actinium coordination chemistry,” appeared in the latest issue of Nature Communications, a highly rated peer-reviewed journal covering the natural sciences.