Nanotechnology covers the investigation, design, manipulation, measurement, modeling or fabrication of matter, structures, devices and systems that exist at nanoscale (or at very tiny atomic or molecular sizes). Nanotechnology is an emerging technology with enormous potential in information and communication technology, biology and biotechnology, medicine and medical technology. Novel nano- and biomaterials, and nano devices are fabricated and controlled by nanotechnology tools and techniques, and tune the properties, responses and functions of living and non-living matter at sizes below 100 nm. This field of science has a huge potential to be a game changer in the way we solve some of the world’s most critical development challenges.
Today consumers can benefit from more reliable and durable kitchen equipment, lighter sporting gear, wearable tech gadgets, more effective sunscreen, longer lasting paints and clothing fabrics that neither smell nor lose colour. Potential benefits of nanotechnology are not purely industrial and economical, but also include benefits to the health and wellness of ordinary people, both in the developed and underdeveloped world.
South Africa’s current advances in nanotechnology research are resulting in more advanced applications in detection, diagnostics (disease diagnosis and imaging), monitoring, drug delivery and therapeutics in healthcare practice. Some of these are in practice, such as malaria diagnostic kits developed by Mintek, while some are still in the research phase.
Through South Africa’s National Nanotechnology Strategy of 2005, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) designated primary health care as one of the six key areas in which the full potential of nanotechnology application needed to be unlocked. Other key potential areas include water, mining, energy, chemical and bio-processing, and materials and manufacturing.
The DST has made tremendous efforts to set up two Nanotechnology Innovation Centres; one at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the other at MINTEK, both collaborating with various private sector and science councils. Among these are the Medical Research Council and Water Research Commission.
The NICs are also geographically spread across South Africa, setting up research units in universities such as: the University of Johannesburg (Gauteng), University of Witwatersrand (Gauteng), Rhodes University (Eastern Cape) and the University of Western Cape. These centres are research driven, primarily to develop nanotechnology products, including nano-based sensor prototypes, nano-composite systems for water treatment, and important nanoparticle based targeted drug delivery systems for use in primary healthcare.
The current nanotechnology work in SA’s biomedical and primary healthcare promises a positive radical shift in the manner in which the detection and diagnosis, prevention, treatment, and monitoring of diseases will be conducted. For example, in detection and diagnosis, researchers are developing sensitive and portable nanoparticle-containing ‘point-of-care’ disease test kits which can offer all the diagnostic functions of a medical laboratory.
These kits are designed to test viruses, bacteria and fungi. They will also be able to screen for infectious diseases such as HIV/Aids, malaria, cholera, sexual transmitted diseases and even cancer. Such a development will not only help to detect and diagnose diseases efficiently and accurately, but also allows for wider healthcare inclusion and provisions to reach out to many rural communities or people living in areas where primary healthcare infrastructure is yet to be realised.
Nanomaterials are also being utilised in some areas of disease treatment. This primarily involves targeted drug delivery and slow-release drug therapy. Because of the their special properties and atomic structure, nanoparticles are designed and engineered to deliver drugs, light, heat or a substance to specific cells in need of treatment, thereby allowing more precise treatment at the correct destination.
This form of treatment may ultimately cut down on the presence of cancerous tumours by removing them and reducing damage to healthy cells in the body. For some time now, research application of nanoparticles that deliver chemotherapy drugs directly to cancer cells has been at an advanced stage in South Africa, and there are clinical trials being conducted.
Researchers in South Africa are working on reformulating current tuberculosis (TB) pills or drugs taken orally into nanoparticles so that they are released slowly into the patient’s bloodstream. This will improve TB drug intake and delivery by replacing the daily pills with a single weekly or monthly dose. Researchers at CSIR have designed nano biogradable polymer capsules containing drugs for TB treatment to deliver the drug taken up by white blood cells more effectively. Hulda Swai, a former senior scientist at CSIR’s Centre for Polymer Technology, says the effect is a slower release of the drug into the body and also a reduction in the frequency with which TB patients need to take the medicine. “These nanoparticles have superior properties for absorption in the small intestine to improve bioavailability, and the technology adds great value for increased compliance and cost-effective materials that are easily accessible and relatively cheap to manufacture,” Swai explains.
CSIR researchers are also working on nano encapsulating antiretroviral and antimalarial drugs. For instance, nano encapsulation can involve coating the anti-malaria drug chloroquine with liposomes, of 100 to 500nm in diameter, which can deliver the drug by penetrating cell membranes, making their action on diseased cells more targeted and efficient.
Researchers are also developing a method to release antiretroviral treatment through nano designed drugs in HIV/Aids treatment. CSIR is collaborating on this research with the African Institute for Biomedical Research in Zimbabwe and the Kenya Medical Research Institute, as well as institutes on other continents, including: the University of Brasilia and Federal University of Rio Grande du Sul in Brazil; India’s Post Graduate Medical Research Institute and Life Care; and the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina.
Bernard Fourie, chief scientific officer of Medicine in Need, a non-profit research organisation with a base in South Africa that aims to develop treatments and vaccines suited to the developing world, alludes that remarkable benefits to healthcare could be expected over the next decade with the development of drugs, vaccines and other pharmaceuticals that will specifically target diseased cells. Nanotechnology research is not cheap but researchers are hopeful that money spent on expensive research and development will be beneficial in the future, ultimately providing more cost-effective solutions, as it will save treatment costs while resulting in more effective gains in health.