The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has increased investment in emerging research areas, in general, and in the National Nanotechnology Strategy, in particular, DST Minister Naledi Pandor said at the international workshop on Nanomedicine for Infectious Diseases of Poverty, in Magaliesberg, in March.
The department has established two nanotechnology innovation centres at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and at national mineral research organisation Mintek. The two innovation centres have a budget of R134-million over the current Medium-Term Expenditure Framework and work with a number of South African tertiary and professional institutions.
“The strategy focuses, as one of its goals, on nanotechnology in the area of health. This is the Mintek nano-centre’s speciality, which has made significant progress and has developed prototype point-of-care diagnostic tools for diseases such as tuberculosis (TB) and malaria,” said Pandor.
Further, there are several flagship projects in some of the country’s nanotechnology development programmes; in particular, there is the nanotechnology-based TB drug-delivery system, which is a project led by the CSIR.
The project seeks to address the challenges of the current TB treatment regimen, with the ultimate goal of reducing the dose frequency and quantity of medicinal drugs. Through this project, existing TB drugs will be encapsulated into a biodegradable nanopolymer for slow release in the system. This will also reduce the cost of treatment.
“The CSIR has successfully encapsulated all four first-line TB drugs in nanopolymer using a technology it has now patented. With the project currently in clinical trials, the prospects for success look good. The novelty of the project and its commendable progress have seen the team receiving several awards, including a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” she said.
While TB has been used as a case study in this project, a lot of capability has been built in the area of drug-delivery systems using nanotechnology. The capability will enable the develop-ment of drug-delivery systems for a wide range of other drugs, the Minister said.
“It is encouraging that the CSIR is building on the acquired capability to establish a nanomedicine research platform. “Given the envisaged contribution of this platform to tackling the challenge of poverty-related diseases, the DST will do everything possible to ensure its success. “We will work together with the CSIR to establish and realise the goals of this nanomedicine platform,” said Pandor.
These projects are in addition to a suite of programmes for knowledge generation and human capital development in the field of nanotechnology, she adds.
As part of its focus on nanotechnology, the DST acquired a high-resolution transmission electron microscope that will be located at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. This facility will improve nanotech-nology research and will be commissioned during the second half of this year, she said.
“The DST is ready to offer assistance through the existing bilateral and multilateral agreements we have with other African countries. “There is a need to pool resources and take deliberate steps to combat these diseases,” she stated.
She added a caveat, saying: “Identifica-tion of potential risks associated with nanotechnology and the development of strategies for mitigation should be integral parts of nanotechnology research and development. “This will ultimately determine the applicability of this technology and, thus, its success.
“Further, we are contributing to global efforts in this area by undertaking an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development-sponsored project focusing on the health-risk assessment of gold nanoparticles. “This project is led by the National Institute of Occupational Health and supported by the DST,” she said.