In an effort to catch up with global trends, South Africa launched its first nanotechnology innovation centre in 2007, with the Department of Science and Technology (DST) stressing that the country was ready to create an environment conducive to harnessing the potential benefits of nanotechnology. This was supported by the setting up of two world class nanotechnology research centres at CSIR and MINTEK. In 2011, South Africa became the first nation on the African continent to own a new US$15 million electron microscopy centre. The Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (HRTEM) was constructed to enable the country and Africa to compete with the world’s best in nanoscience and nanotechnology research.
As a result of some of these efforts, the country is now rapidly expanding in the area of nano application research cutting across many sectors, ranging from healthcare to construction and electronics. In medicine, it promises to revolutionise drug delivery, gene therapy, diagnostics, biomedical research, development and clinical application. From a development point of view, the health care sector of the country is set to change the basic methods of diagnostics and surgery and also alter how pharmaceutical drugs are packaged and consumed.
However, while nanotech application progress is rapidly expanding it also brings with it potential risk that may be posed to people and to the environment. Whether actual or perceived, the potential risk that nanotechnology poses to human health must be investigated. To harness the full potential of nanotechnology it is important that the risk and limitations be fully explored.
The ability to manipulate structures and properties at nanoscale in medicine is like having a sub-microscopic lab bench on which you can handle cell components, viruses or pieces of DNA, using a range of tiny tools, robots and tubes. The last decade has witnessed a massive output of nano products that could be channeled into the healthcare delivery system. Take, for example, polymer ‘carrier’ molecules used in chemotherapy to ferry drugs to the affected cancer cells.
In the future, treatments to reduce obesity could possibly involve nanoparticles. Even gold and silver nanoparticles have become handy in biomedical imaging aiding in producing excellent images of tumours. Nano therapeutic components, diagnostic test kits and nanobots all help to explain the rate of innovation and development within nanomedicine.
In South Africa, tangible products are now being developed further emphasising the future of nanomedicine. The discoveries of nanofibres to spur the growth of nerve cells and nanostructured gels for cell regeneration, now under further development at the University of the Free State, are evidence of this. The desired goal in this field is to develop numerous products that will enhance well-tailored diagnostic methods and treatments in line with an individual’s DNA or genetic make-up.
Such products not only present a variety of medical applications of nanotechnology but also the commitment of South African researchers to ensure more nano products are introduced to the market. While this is good story to tell, there are considerable challenges, the greatest of which is how to scale up production of materials and tools, human resource expertise and how to bring costs and timeframes down.
While it is impressive to see the fast pace of research and the vast opportunities available for nanomaterials to enter the healthcare market, it appears not enough is being done to determine their toxicological effect or their impact on human health, our water supplies, crops and the environment. Very little is detailed about the relationship between the exposure to nanoparticles and health.
Extremely small sizes of nanoparticles mean that they are more readily taken up by the human body than larger particles. The question then is what are the potential effects? In the environment, what happens, for instance, to insoluble or non degradable nanoparticles? Nanomaterials comprising inorganic metal oxides and metals are thought to be most likely to pose a risk. The Royal Academy of Engineering and the House of Commons raised concerns on silver nanoparticles used in socks to reduce odour released in the wash. The particles are ultimately flushed into streams and consequently destroy bacteria that are important in natural ecosystems. More environmentally friendly ways of disposal are still being investigated.
In essence due to its broad applications in medicine and healthcare, nanotechnology will unavoidably face a wide range of bioethical issues: informed consent; access to healthcare; privacy of medical information; end-of-product disposal and public protections issues. There is little doubt that nanotechnology is shaping the future by disrupting conventional methods and application of both lab research and treatment in medicine. Ultimately it is important to start laying down frameworks for the application of nanotechnology at this early phase.