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Next nano revolution

Last updated: 17 May, 2010

Research

Therapies for cancer have traditionally involved highly powerful drugs. But, if bio-nanotechnology research goes off well, it could solve the dilemma doctors face today in treating cancer. Nanotechnology can be strengthened with biosciences learns L Subramani

It has often been hailed as the next revolution in technology. If on-going research were to be successful, experts say that it would pave the way for everything from improved quality of life for human beings to environmental sustainability. Nanotechnology worldwide has been applied in different areas, including health, life sciences and other facets of biology.

Dubbed “bio-nanotechnology”, the subject has been of interest to many researchers, including those from India at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), who are jointly working with Australia’s Deakin University. “The research has been going on for nearly two years,” said Prof Lee Astheimer, Deputy Vice Chancellor of Deakin University, who visited Bangalore recently along with two of her colleagues to meet with the university’s research partners in the city.

“Most of the research in bio-nanotechnology falls within the subjects of biotech, chemistry and material science with emphasis on nanotechnology and we are working on newer concepts in the area along with researchers in TERI (Delhi).”

Recently, Deakin and TERI signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) at the Nano - Bio Research Centre in Delhi, which would delve into deeper research in bio-nanotechnology, with the Australians bringing in all the required expertise in the subject and research heads from both parties guiding the students.

Prof Colin Barrow, Chair of Biotechnology and Director Bio at Deakin, explained that nanotechnology research conducted in partnership with TERI has been specifically exploring the aspect of bioavailability.

“Nanotechnology, in the ‘bio’ sense is about ‘bio availability’,” Prof Barrow said. “It could be used to target cancer drugs to improve solubility so that the effect is provided to the system in a more even fashion. It could also be used to deliver drugs to the target organ.”

The therapies for cancer has traditionally involved highly powerful drugs that may end up affecting the healthy organs of a patient. Oncologists had very little choice but to let patients struggle with adverse effects of the drugs to stop the cancer from claiming their lives. If researches explained by Prof Barrow were to be successful, nanotechnology could solve the dilemma doctors face today in treating cancer.
Researches around bio-nanotechnology done by the TERI-Deakin team is trying to use nano particles to deliver cancer drugs to the target organ -the organ that has been affected by cancer. This, according to Prof Barrow, not only dissipates the toxic drug evenly on the organ, but also prevents its concentration on the sides, eventually preventing its impact on the healthy organs.

Applying the concept in a somewhat similar method in microbiology (pharmacology), the university is also exploring ways of using micro organisms to act as expression systems for protein drugs. “Insulin, for instance, is made by first expressing it inside the micro organism and then isolating it,” Prof Barrow explained, pointing out that large amount of commercial insulin has already been taken from micro organisms.
“We are working with one of the companies to make derivatives that can work longer so that when insulin is injected it would work for a longer time. This can be done by taking derivatives of insulin taken from expression systems rather than taking native insulin.”

Nanotech group at Deakin
Given the wider application of nanotechnology across several areas of science, Deakin, Prof Barrow said, has a large ‘Nanotechnology group’ with a wider focus. Some of these include drug delivery, pharmacology, plant sciences and cancer cell therapy. Besides these and other bio-applications, the group, in collaboration with the material sciences department at the university, has also been working on nano materials to produce very light metals to build automobile that can be stronger and lighter at the same time.
“Nanotechnology has the potential to strengthen biosciences,” Prof Barrow said. “It has been widely incorporated into biotechnology, especially in medical biosciences. These are pretty broader areas consisting of specific aspects of specialisations.” The TERI team, according to Deakin representatives, has been showing interest in both medical and agriculture applications of nanotechnology. “Like in cancer patients, nanotechnology can be used in plants to deliver pesticides,” Prof Barrow said.

“Nano particles are released to the leaves to disperse the pesticides at the leaves, which is a controlled way of making the chemicals work. This is good for the environment, since it reduces the pesticides from spreading through the environment causing pollution. Since certain insect infestations cannot be stopped through genetic modification, this could complement genetic engineering in saving plants from decaying due to pests.”
The Deakin Vice Chancellor and head of nanotechnology were a part of the 12-member delegation of researchers who were in India for a two-day-long symposium co-hosted by Deakin and Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) Hyderabad on ‘Trends in Molecular and Cellular applications of Nano-Sciences’.

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