Particles of hope

Nanotech is being heralded as a white knight for the developing world, with the potential to eradicate poverty, disease and pollution. Julia Pierce reports.

Six years into a new millennium and around five billion people in the developing world are surviving in conditions little different from those experienced by their ancestors a century earlier. Yet while inhabitants of developed nations have access to an ever-growing array of scientific advances, many of these developments have so far failed to reach other parts of the globe. In 2000 the UN set eight Millennium Development Goals for 2015, aimed at improving the lives of those in the world’s poorest regions. These include eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, combating diseases including HIV/AIDS and malaria and ensuring environmental sustainability. The UN Millennium Project’s Task Force on Science, Technology and Innovation has identified the emerging science of nanotechnology as an important tool for tackling these problems. The economic signs are promising. Worldwide investment in nanotech R&D is soaring, with around 60 individual countries now boasting established national nanotech research programmes. And while the US unsurprisingly leads the way with an initiative that has received £2.5bn since 2001, a number of significant efforts are also underway in the UK. Last month saw the opening of a new £4.3m nanotech metrology centre, the latest initiative from the UK’s MicroNanotechnologyNetwork, a group dedicated to unlocking the potential of UK nanotech research. Perhaps one of the most significant developing world problems that could be addressed by nanotech is water pollution, which according to the UN contributes to the death of an estimated 15 million children under the age of five every year. Yet this could be combated using nanofilters and engineered nanoparticles. Magnetic nanoparticles coated with compounds that have an affinity for certain chemicals are already able to remove organic pollutants including oil. Research is also underway into the effectiveness of reusable carbon nanotube filters to remove bacteria including e-coli and the polio virus. For instance, in a related UK development a group at Leeds University recently succeeded in the development of a nano-composite coating that will react to the presence of micro-organisms such as e-coli and destroy them. Nanotech-based systems also have the potential to improve the efficiency of clean energy generation. If this can be made both practical and affordable, it will prevent nations suffering pollution and environmental damage as they industrialise. By using nanomaterials such as quantum dots and carbon nanotubes to improve the performance of solar power generation, hydrogen could be generated from water by electrolysis. The same nanomaterials would be used to increase the efficiency of the electrolytic reaction as well. The Leeds group also recently announced the creation of ‘nanofluids’, liquids that can transfer heat up to 400 per cent faster than water thanks to a suspension of nanoparticles. While the the technology has a range of possible applications from cooling down organs for surgery to helping cool computer circuits more efficiently, Dr Sean Kelly, programme manager at Leeds’ University’s NanoManufacturing Institute, said that any technology that has the potential to save energy and improve efficiency in these ways could have some important uses in the developing world. Meanwhile, in medicine, nanotech-enabled diagnostic tools and drug or vaccine delivery systems are being examined as a way to solve the longstanding logistical problems of delivering care to remote regions. ‘The number of lives lost per year from the human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes cervical cancer, is enormous,’ said Dr Thierry Coche, associate director and head of new technologies and bioinformatics at GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals R&D in Belgium, which is currently researching a nanotech-based HPV vaccine. ‘The disease has an 80 per cent mortality rate in the developing world.’ As with vaccines used to prevent childhood diseases including measles, several criteria must be fulfilled to produce an HPV vaccine that can be widely used. It must not need refrigeration, as this can be difficult in regions where power supplies are erratic. It should employ needle-free delivery to reduce the chance of infection caused by accidental or deliberate needle reuse, while removing the need for administration by highly trained workers. Ideally it should be given in a single dose after the birth of a child. All this would ensure protection is immediate and does not require numerous visits to a health clinic — something that may be difficult where roads or transport are poor. ‘Neonatal vaccines require molecules of the right size, shape and composition to get the immature immune system to work,’ explained Erin Court of the Canadian Program in Genomics and Global Health at the University ofToronto Joint Centre for Bioethics, which is researching medicine delivery. ‘We are looking for a novel formula that can preserve the antigen at room temperature. Delivery methods including inhalation and absorption through the skin are also being investigated, all of which involve nanotechnology.’ In April 2005 the university published a study identifying and ranking the 10 nanotech applications most likely to benefit less industrialised countries over the coming decade. The panel included 63 international experts, 60 per cent of whom were from developing countries. According to the findings, most experts agreed on the top four applications: energy storage, production and conversion; enhancement of agricultural productivity; water treatment; and, finally, disease diagnosis and screening. Given this, the University of Toronto team found that nanotechnology could make a significant contribution to five of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals. Success in the medical field alone would prove invaluable in combating diseases that have plagued mankind for centuries. ‘Around a third of the world’s population has TB,’ said Dr Hulda Shaidi Swai, a researcher at the manufacturing and materials technology division of South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). ‘You are then infected for life. The number of TB patients in South Africa alone has doubled in the past seven years because the number of HIV cases is rising — about 85 per cent of TB patients are HIV positive. However, the incidence of multi-drug resistant TB (MDR-TB) is growing as people fail to complete their prescribed drug course. But MDR-TB costs 100 times more to treat than normal TB and half the patients die. ‘To combat this, either people with TB must be hospitalised to ensure they are taking their drugs or they must come to the hospital each day to be observed to take them, but this is expensive. Developing a slow-release system such as polymeric nanoparticles loaded with anti-TB drugs that would deliver them over time would be ideal.’ But do developing nations really have both the money and expertise to create such solutions and, if not, can developed nations be counted on to provide the answers? ‘Science and technology is vital to meeting the UN’s goals,’ said Court. ‘However, it is a common perception that using nanotechnology to further these aims is too expensive for developing nations, unless wealthier nations keep supporting them. This is not true. Countries such as India, South Africa and China have developed strong national initiatives and also good links to local industries.’ However, less developed nations are aware that nanotechnology could provide a solution to their most pressing problems and have begun to foster national initiatives. They realise that their concerns are unlikely to be prioritised by developed countries, which will be more interested in meeting their own needs first. In April 2005 China became the first nation to issue national standards for nanotechnology, including rules governing the measuring and naming of nanomaterials. Other nations not normally known for their technological investment are also making good progress. The Brazilian national nanotechnology initiative began in 2001 and has a predicted budget of £17m for 2004 to 2007. Meanwhile, India’s National Nanotechnology Programme has funding of £7m over the next three years. The nation has also set up a national programme on smart materials that will receive £10m of funds over five years. ‘Looking at problems in townships and villages, how technology can be applied and how it will affect people on the ground is more likely to work than taking a benevolent approach,’ said Shak Gohir, programme manager at British northeast regional bio-nanotechnology project Cenamps. ‘At the moment 90 per cent of the world’s R&D investment is focused on the developed world and their needs. Some sort of global fund that would help to target research would be better.’ Dr Fabio Salamanca-Buentello of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics believes the scientific community has reached a crucial point in history where nanotech research could still avoid the fate of simply being used to create consumer products for the citizens of rich nations. ‘India and China are the most advanced developing countries for nanotechnology. They are advancing as fast as developed nations. The number of patents they are producing is growing and their findings are great.’ However, with the exception of South Africa, Africa is lagging behind. Widespread poverty and disease means any available government money is targeted at eradication rather than technological development. The West is taking small steps to help. In February 2004 Canadian prime minister Paul Martin pledged five per cent of the country’s R&D investment in nanotechnology would be used to address developing world challenges. He added that government policy would also provide incentives to the private sector to direct a portion of their R&D towards the initiative. While the UK government has so far been silent on this issue Cenamps’ Gohir said that the products of current research could have a crucial role to play. The organisation is currently fostering the development of nano-enabled photovoltaic devices at its newly established Photonics Materials Institute in Durham. ‘Though these will initially be intended for the developed world, it is not hard to see what they can do elsewhere,’ Gohir said. ‘Technology drives economic progress, but if developing countries can have access to systems developed elsewhere they may not have to progress as slowly as the UK and US did during their industrial revolutions.’ However, despite their enthusiasm for nanotech, developing nations still have barriers to overcome. ‘In a developing country it is one thing to set up a national institute as the first stage but a different thing to see it completed,’ said Salamanca-Buentello. ‘Finding the correct way to administrate funds is also a great problem as things get mired at a bureaucratic level.’ The nanotech revolution also has a potential downside as adoption of new technologies could pose wide scale problems for traditional industries and their employees. In February 2005 the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) sponsored the first dialogue on nanotechnology between developed and developing nations. During this, both India and South Africa warned of the dangers of raw materials becoming obsolete in the nano-age, as well as the enormous impact this would have on the countries concerned. ‘If a country depends on a single product this can lead to persistent poverty,’ said Hope Shand, a research director at the ETC Group, which promotes sustainable development. ‘However, new materials can topple a commodities market. Workers in developing countries are not very flexible in redeveloping their skills. We are not defending the status quo, but the products of nanotechnology could cause huge socio-economic disruption and societies are not prepared for this.’ Among the industries with the potential to be threatened are the platinum, cotton and rubber industries. In the case of the latter, around two-thirds of the world’s natural rubber output is used by the tyre industry. However, many leading tyre manufacturers are now looking to nanoparticles to extend tyre life, reducing the need to buy rubber. In tests by Cabot, one of the world’s leading tyre-rubber producers, silica carbide nanoparticles reduced abrasion by almost 50 per cent. Use of carbon nanotubes is also being investigated, as are nanoparticles of clay. These are mixed with plastics and synthetic rubber to create an airtight surface that could be used to seal the inside of tyres, reducing the amount of rubber required and making tyres lighter, cheaper and cooler running. Development of super-lightweight aerogels consisting of billions of nano-air bubbles in a silica matrix is also being investigated; these could replace rubber tyres altogether. Goodyear has already patented a tyre that incorporates silica aerogels in its tread. According to Shand, while there may be some environmental benefits from reducing rubber use such as reducing the problem of disposing of used tyres, the effect on farmers in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand should not be underestimated. Though nanotech-based technologies have been heralded as agents that could eradicate poverty, disease and pollution, there is still a long way to go. Developing nations have taken an important step by investing in research and looking at problems from a local perspective rather than having solutions dictated to them. However, to ensure that manual workers do not suffer from the changes brought by scientific advancement and that the benefits of this are felt worldwide, developed nations will still have a role to play in promoting new skills transferable into the new markets. If the right paths are chosen, the benefits could be substantial. ‘In the end it makes sense for industrialised countries to help developing nations to solve their problems through this technology,’ said Salamanca-Buentello. ‘In a global community, nations inhabited by people with a decent standard of living are less likely to become problematic than poor, unstable ones.