They are also able to monitor the gold's effects on the cells in a non-destructive way. Previous methods for this type of analysis were destructive to the cell.
Lead author, Dr Louise Wedlock, who carried out the work while at UWA's School of Biomedical, Biomolecular and Chemical Sciences, and her colleagues, write that one technique - nanoscale secondary ion mass spectrometry - enabled the visualisation of the gold at a subcellular level. The other technique - energy filtered transmission electron microscopy - gave element maps for the gold, allowing the scientists to see nuclear and mitochondrial morphology.
The analysis was undertaken by UWA's Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis.
"In the past few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the medicinal chemistry of gold compounds, particularly as anticancer agents," they write.
"A stimulus for this research has been the increasing realisation that the unique properties of metal ions can be exploited in the design of new drugs. Certain gold compounds are selectively toxic to cancer cells but not to normal cells. However, the development of gold-based chemotherapeutics requires a much deeper understanding of the subcellular biochemical pathways involved."
The combination of methods could also be used to study the subcellular distribution of other types of metal-based drugs, such as platinum anticancer drugs, say the researchers.