Copper and our Health – Fact or Fiction?

In Copper: Bug Buster, our temporary summer exhibit, we explore some of the myths or beliefs around copper and its affect – positive and negative – on our health.

One commonly held belief is that copper is toxic. This belief is indeed true. However…it is not as clear cut as some would think. In large amounts, copper is toxic, causing severe health issues. Acute poisoning can present a range of abdominal symptoms. Chronic exposure can cause kidney and liver issues.

Yet too little copper in the body can also cause issues. Copper is an essential trace element in our bodies. Copper deficiency can cause a range of symptoms including fatigue and a weakened immune system. Fortunately, a balanced diet provides enough copper. Even better, dark chocolate gives us almost 90% of our recommended daily intake. Yum!

This science is not in doubt. However, like many areas of science, research and clinical studies can be quite conflicting.

One place where conflicting studies make for interesting reading is around cancer. It has been known for many years that copper is instrumental in causing cancerous cells to proliferate and tumours to grow. In fact tumours are known to have quite elevated copper levels. Studies have shown that reducing copper levels in cancer patients can inhibit tumour growth.

Yet, some researchers are investigating ways in which copper can actually do the opposite, and help eliminate the tumour. By combining immunotherapy (using the patient’s own immune system to fight the cancer) along with copper oxide nanoparticles, studies conducted on mice found that this method not only killed the cancer cells, but it did not attack the healthy cells, and prevented the cancer from returning by allowing the body’s immune system to attack future cancer cell growth. Either the immunotherapy or the nanoparticles on their own did not work, but combined, they worked very well.

Human clinical studies have not taken place, so there is a long way to go before this may become an approved method of treatment. It may not even work in humans. But it is certainly an appealing prospect. It also goes to show that when it comes to science, never forget to think outside the box.


Featured Image by ThisisEngineering RAEng on Unsplash