Dr Lungile Thwala was born in Swaziland and obtained a Bachelor of Science degree (with majors in Chemistry and Biological Sciences) from the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) in 2007 and a Master of Science in Chemistry from the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in 2012. Thereafter, she enrolled as a PhD candidate at the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC) in Spain and the Universit`e Catholique de Louvain (UCL) in Belgium, after being awarded the NanoFar Grant under the NanoFar, Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctorate programme in nanomedicine and pharmaceutical innovation.
She recently defended her thesis at both Universities in June 2016 and consequently obtained a double degree in Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical technology (USC) and Biomedical Sciences (UCL).
Dr Thwala focuses on developing nanotechnology drug delivery systems and encapsulating drug molecules within these systems. She recently joined Unisa’s Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability (NanoWS) Research Unit.
De Thwala explained more about her work, academic journey and drug delivery through nanotechnology.
How did you end up in nanotechnology?
I always had an interest in health sciences but I did not want to completely divert from my Chemistry major, so I joined the department of Applied Sciences at UJ for my MSc. My then supervisor, Prof Krause, was very enthusiastic when it came to exploring new ideas and we both wanted to venture into the application of nanotechnology in solving medical issues. I worked in his medicinal chemistry lab and developed nanoparticles for the delivery of essential oils. The project was quite unique from what everybody else was doing in the lab at that time and involved a lot of reading from my side. I learnt a lot from the literature review and, in the process, my interest and passion for nanomedicine grew.
What is your area of focus?
My area of focus in nanomedicine is basically developing drug delivery systems and encapsulating drug molecules within these systems. I have worked with drug molecules which have different properties in nature i.e. hydrophobic (e.g. essential oils) and hydrophilic (e.g. insulin and other proteins) drugs and most of the drug delivery systems I developed were aimed for the oral route of administration.
What exactly do you deal with in your area of focus and how does it work?
In a nutshell, my work focuses on the development of nano-particulate carriers, aimed at producing “needle-free” pharmaceutical products. This emanates form the fact that patient compliance with the current drug administration regimens by any of the parenteral routes (intramuscular or subcutaneous injection) is generally poor, which severely restricts the therapeutic value of most drugs. For instance, in the specific case of insulin, diabetic patients have to endure multiple injections a day, which may result in pain, allergic reactions, infections and nerve damage. Therefore, the oral route for insulin therapy is highly desirable and represents a priority objective in pharmaceutical innovation. Developing an oral formulation involves encapsulating the protein in a drug delivery system to improve its stability and protect it from enzyme degradation in the gastro intestinal tract. The drug also has to be released in a controlled manner i.e. slowly over a long period of time. Since the nanoparticles are usually extremely small in size, they are able to promote the absorption of the drug into the blood circulation system and target sites such as cells and tissues. All these properties offered by nanoparticles lead to more efficient treatment of diseases.
Do you believe nanotechnology has the potential to change the world?
Yes, most definitely nanotechnology has a huge potential to change the world.
How quickly do you believe the power of nanotechnology will start impacting the world?
I believe that nanotechnology has already started to impact the world. Scientists have realised that using materials at their atomic level brings out more interesting and fundamental properties and, hence, a number of “nano”products and those that contain “nano materials” are already in the market.
You have been working in Spain. What are the differences between Spain and SA in terms of nano application?
In my opinion, both countries are at a very advanced level when it comes to nanotechnology research although it seems to me that Spain is making a huge effort at developing marketed products and closing the gap between basic research and industry. For example, a large Spanish nanotechnology network, NanoSpain, promotes the exchange of knowledge between Spanish groups working in different fields related to nanotechnology and nanoscience, increasing collaborations among universities, research institutions and industry. Several companies in Spain already use nanotechnology to improve their products. Universities have nanotechnology research activities and offer nanotechnotechnology degree programs.
What contribution do you feel your research can make towards nano in health?
My research work can help improve the efficiency of disease treatment by improving the bioavailability of drugs administered by the oral route and hence increase patient compliance.
How can nanomedicine positively influence health and general wellbeing in the near future?
The attractiveness of nanotechnology applications lies in the unique characteristics and phenomena that manifest due to their small size. Applications of nanotechnology in the screening, diagnosis, and treatment of disease are collectively referred to as “nanomedicine”. Engineering materials on this scale allows for novel medical therapies, such as designing nanoparticle-based drugs that target cells with improved specificity, resulting in decreased side effects for patients. Other advances are being made in medical devices and instrumentation for use in surgical procedures that are less invasive, leading to shorter recovery times and decreased risk of post-operative infections or other complications. Such innovations will improve the quality of life, extend life expectancies, and could reduce the overall cost of healthcare.
Can you give us some simple examples of how this technology can work?
During the engineering of nanomaterials, use is made of the surface-to-volume ratio which is favourable in these tiny dimensions and which gives materials of this kind special or new and improved properties. Think about cancer treatment. What doctors really want, in oncology, is to kill tumour cells. It’s unfortunate that one of the best tools for killing tumour cells is chemotherapy, which has the unfortunate side effect of also killing regular healthy cells. This also makes patients very sick. Nanotechnology offers a way to direct interventions in the human body, potentially on a level of individual cells, using smart nanoparticles that are only taken up by and kill cancer cells. This technology can help facilitate research, early detection, prevention, and treatment of cancer.
What are the other ways that nanotechnology can be used in our day to day living?
Nanotechnology is helping to considerably improve and even revolutionise, many technology and industry sectors: information technology, energy, environmental science, medicine, homeland security, food safety, and transportation, among many others. Using nanotechnology, materials can effectively be made to be stronger, lighter, more durable, more reactive, more sieve-like, or better electrical conductors, among many other traits.
There are over 800 everyday commercial products that already exist and that rely on nanoscale materials and processes. For example; nanotechnology could help meet the need for affordable, clean drinking water through rapid, low-cost detection of impurities, and filtration and purification of water. Nanoscale additives in polymer composite materials for baseball bats, tennis rackets, motorcycle helmets, automobile bumpers, luggage, and power tool housings can make them simultaneously lightweight, stiff, durable, and resilient. Nanoscale thin films on eyeglasses, computer and camera displays, windows, and other surfaces can make them water-repellent, antireflective, self-cleaning, resistant to ultraviolet or infrared light, antifog, antimicrobial, or scratch-resistant. Nanoscale materials in cosmetic products provide greater health properties in sunscreens, cleansers, complexion treatments, creams and lotions, shampoos, and specialized makeup. The list is endless.
If we asked you to describe nanomedicine in one sentence what would you say?
Nanomedicine: An incredibly small solution to big problems!
In your view what hinders more women from getting into STEM related careers?
In my experience many girls and women say that they are not interested in STEM related careers. I believe that interest in an occupation is influenced by many factors, including a belief that one can succeed in that occupation. Most women lack confidence in themselves, they don´t believe that they can be good or successful in such careers. This lack confidence roots from the general bias that people have when it comes to women in STEM related careers. Not only are people more likely to associate maths and science with men than with women, people also often hold negative opinions of women in “masculine” positions, like scientists or engineers.
People judge women to be less competent than men in these types of jobs unless they are clearly successful in their work and when a woman is clearly competent in a “masculine” job, she is considered to be less likable. Because both likability and competence are needed for success in the workplace, women in STEM fields can find themselves in a double bind and, hence, fewer want to take that career path. I also believe that family responsibilities may hinder some women from persuing STEM related careers. While marriage does not appear to hurt women, having young children does affect their chances for advancement. Having young children in the home may affect women’s productivity since child-care responsibilities fall disproportionately on women.