Coal as a potent antioxidant

Traumatic events, such as brain injuries, strokes, and heart attacks affect millions of people each year and can be fatal. All of these conditions involve oxidative stress, which is a bodily imbalance between the levels of free radicals and antioxidants.

In the case of traumatic brain injuries, the number of free radicals increases rapidly, resulting in tissue damage and, potentially, organ dysfunction. This imbalance can also lead to the lasting effects of heart attack and stroke.

Antioxidant therapy is one way to combat oxidative stress. Researchers are still studying its efficacy, but many consider it to be a promising treatment. However, natural antioxidants, such as the enzyme superoxide dismutase, tend to be overrun by free radicals called reactive oxygen species (ROS).

Scientists have long sought an artificial antioxidant that could help the body’s natural antioxidants overpower ROS. Now researchers working at several separate universities in Texas have come across an unexpected ally — a coal-based antioxidant.

The antioxidant is based on graphene quantum dots (GQDs) which scientists first discovered in 2013. The quantum dots are tiny semiconductor particles that scientists can manipulate in certain ways. It was previously shown that adding polyethylene glycol (PEG) to hydrophilic clusters could reduce oxidative stress. One nanoparticle canceled out thousands of ROS molecules.

But coal has been found to provide a much cheaper and more convenient solution. The scientists found that adding PEG to coal-derived quantum dots was equally, if not more, effective. Testing the coal dots on live cells taken from rodents, the researchers were able to show that a number of different concentrations reduced ROS activity. They saw a positive effect even when they administered the quantum dots 15 minutes after adding hydrogen peroxide to the samples. Hydrogen peroxide is a chemical that induces oxidative stress.

The researchers extracted quantum dots from both bituminous and anthracite coal. While dots from the former are smaller, they were less effect; on the other hand dots derived from anthracite could preserve more cells even at lower concentrations.

Although the scientists will have to do more research into antioxidant therapy, they believe their work will be hugely beneficial in the future, as coal-derived quantum dots are much simpler and less expensive to produce and opens the door to more readily accessible therapies.