A (South) African perspective on nanomedicine development

(Nanowerk Spotlight)
Imagine a world where doctors had the ability to destroy cancerous cells before they develop into tumour.
Nanomedicine is expanding rapidly around the world, including South Africa. Nanomedicine it is the branch of medicine concerned with the use of nanotechnology to improve diagnosis, treatment, monitoring, control, and repair of all human biological systems using engineered devices and nanoinstruments to achieve optimum medical benefit.
In the health sector, nanomedicinal advancements have improved drastically; these include the use of biosensors for diagnostic purpose and biocompatible nanomaterials as drug, vaccine, and gene vehicles for therapy, and nanocapsules for cancer treatment.
Regardless of these developments in nanotechnology and nanomedicine, African countries are still falling behind, therefore the African governments still need to invest greatly in research and development (R&D) of nanotechnological research and human capacity building. Nanotechnology has the ability to completely transform the health care sector, particularly in developing countries like South Africa, where access to effective healthcare is still a challenge for millions of people living in poverty-stricken environments.

Nanomedicine background

Nanoparticles are tiny particles that have been engineered to have different shapes, sizes, and forms for various purposes. These particles can be used to transport certain substances to specific areas of the body. The small size of these particles increases their surface area, which in turn improves their solubility, dissolution, and bioavailability. This leads to faster onset of action when used for medical treatments.
Nanoparticles have the potential to enhance performance and functionality in areas such as diagnostics, drug delivery, and health monitoring. Their small size allows them to easily enter living cells, potentially delivering drugs directly to diseased cells or pathogens without damaging healthy cells. Different types of nanomaterials are being investigated, including liposomes, lipids, dendrimers, nanocapsules, nanotubes, nanofibers, nanowires, and metallic nanoparticles.
Nanomedicine is preferred over conventional medicine due to the ability to manufacture new materials that target specific properties and functions. The goal of nanomedicine is to diagnose as early and accurately as possible, treat effectively without side effects, and assess treatment efficacy non-invasively.
There are over 50 formulations currently available on the market, including a nanoparticle-based protein vaccine (Novavax), nanoparticle-based mRNA vaccine (Moderna and Pfizer), and lipid nanoparticle-based small interference (siRNA), Onpattro® (patisiran, Alnylam Pharmaceuticals). The most recent and well-known examples are the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna messenger RNA-lipid nanoparticle-based SARS-CoV-2 vaccines.
In summary, Nanotechnology has the capability to design medical products that can overcome critical barriers in conventional medicine in a unique manner, including target delivery approach within the infected cells.

The state of nanomedicine in South Africa

In comparison to other regions, the application of nanotechnology in medicine is relatively new in Africa. Developed countries in Europe and America have taken a leading role in this field due to significant investment in research and development. The development of nanotechnology is costly, as it requires advanced equipment and cleanroom facilities. Many African countries, despite having policies and strategies in place, struggle to allocate sufficient resources for research in nanomedicine. Most of the research conducted on the subject in Africa is focused on academic interests, rather than practical applications. Additionally, as nanotechnology is a relatively new field, many universities and higher education institutions have not yet developed specific courses on the subject.
In Africa, South Africa is considered as the leading country in terms of health care services and biomedical research. In the past few years or so, the South Africa Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) and other education programs started to engage with the community and spread the word on nanomedicine so that everyone can have a better understanding about how nanomedicine works.
South Africa has established a MSc Nanoscience Postgraduate Programme – a collaborative programme between the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Nelson Mandela University (NMU), the University of the Free State (UFS) and the University of the Western Cape (UWC).
In Egypt, the Zewail City of Science, Technology, and Innovation a non-profit, independent institution of learning, research and innovation, has established an undergraduate bachelor’s degree of science in nanoscience: the BSc in Nano Science.
Over the past decade, the South African government has been investing in nanotechnology-based equipment and infrastructure, human capital development, and R&D at several public universities and science centres. These research facilities are available to researchers from across the continent and beyond. Prominent among them are the
  • Centre for High Resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (HRTEM)
  • DSI-Mandela nanomedicine platform at Nelson Mandela University (NMU)
  • National Centre for Nanostructured Materials – a characterisation facility and nanomaterials industrial development facility at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)
  • Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre (NIC).
  • The establishment of these centres and platforms by the South African government has increased nanomedicine research outputs from academia and is paving the way towards academic entrepreneurship of nanomedicine products and services.

    Future perspective

    The future of nanomedicine in Africa is promising. The World Health Organization (WHO) has established partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry, such as Pfizer in South Africa and Moderna in Kenya, to establish the first two African mRNA hubs. These public-private partnerships focus on technology transfer and human capacity building, which will enable African scientists and inventors to produce their own mRNA vaccines and nanomedicine products that are tailored to the specific needs of the African population. This is crucial in addressing vaccine inequality and ensuring access to medicine for all.
    In the next few years, it is likely that we will see nanomedicine-based drugs or vaccines developed in Africa enter the global market.
    Additionally, the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and other medical technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and 3D printing is expected to dominate and transform the medical technology and pharmaceutical industries. This convergence of technologies promises to provide more accurate diagnoses, targeted therapies with fewer side effects, and improved medical imaging and personalized medicine.
    African governments need to take advantage of nanomedicine innovation and their partnerships with international private companies in order to develop their nanomedicine innovation and create job opportunities, and/or to achieve their United Nation Sustainable Development Goals (UN-SDGs) by 2030.
    By Ms Sinovuyo Banzana and Dr Steven Mufamadi. Ms Banzana is science communicator at DSI-Mandela Nanomedicine Platform in NMU-Missionvale Campus. She specializes in disseminating scientific information from researchers. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Science: Animal Production obtained from the University of Fort Hare in 2020. Dr Steven Mufamadi is Research Chair in nanomedicine at the DSI-Mandela Nanomedicine Platform of Nelson Mandela University, and the founder of Nabio Consulting (Pty) Ltd. He holds a PhD in Pharmaceutics from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. Dr Mufamadi has received training in pharmaceutical nanotechnology from Novartis Pharma in Basel, Switzerland.

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