The asteroid that spelled destruction for the dinosaurs may have unexpectedly brought with it a boon to human health. New research out of the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom and Sun Yat-Sen University in China seems to demonstrate that a rare metal found in meteorites can kill cancer cells, according to a press release.

Iridium is an incredibly scarce element in Earth's crust, but it has a higher abundance in some space rocks. Most notably, a great deal of iridium is found in a clay layer that coats our planet, known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. This is the geological layer that marks the extinction of the dinosaurs.

For the research, the international team of scientists created a compound of iridium and organic material, then activated the concoction by focusing a laser on it. This turned the oxygen inside the material into a high-energy form of oxygen, which is poisonous and kills targeted cells. Incredibly, researchers were able to easily target cancer cells with the process without harming any healthy tissue.

"This project is a leap forward in understanding how these new iridium-based anti-cancer compounds are attacking cancer cells, introducing different mechanisms of action, to get around the resistance issue and tackle cancer from a different angle," said co-author Cookson Chiu, a postgraduate researcher in Warwick’s Department of Chemistry.

The future of cancer research may lie in the past

Iridium was originally discovered in 1803 among insoluble impurities in natural platinum — an element commonly found in chemotherapy treatments. So perhaps it's not surprising that iridium has cancer-treating properties too.

"The precious metal platinum is already used in more than 50 percent of cancer chemotherapies. The potential of other precious metals such as iridium to provide new targeted drugs which attack cancer cells in completely new ways and combat resistance, and which can be used safely with the minimum of side-effects, is now being explored," explained Professor Peter Sadler, another of the study's co-authors. "International collaborations can greatly hasten progress. It’s certainly now time to try to make good medical use of the iridium delivered to us by an asteroid 66 million years ago!"

As cancer patients continually develop resistance to traditional treatments, this discovery could be the way forward.

An open access to the full research paper can be found here.