[DURBAN] South African scientists have used nanotechnology to enhance the absorption of tuberculosis (TB) drugs in the body so that fewer, smaller doses are needed.
Clinical trials for the antibiotic, Rifanano — a combination of the four main first-line TB drugs — are scheduled for 2012 and the drug should be available in government clinics in 2016, Hulda Swai, principal researcher in biomaterials research told SciDev.Net.
Swai and her team from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) won 'best science to business opportunity' at the second SA Bio Plan Competition held during the recent Bio2Biz Conference in South Africa last week (20–23 September).
Rifanano needs to be taken just once a week for two months and there are no adverse reactions. Most TB antibiotics must be taken daily for up to six months and often cause debilitating side effects, such as nausea and fatigue.
The new drug is coated with nano-sized particles which are in turn coated with chemicals that make them stick to the intestine wall, enabling the drug to be far more easily absorbed.
"When the white blood cells see these particles they take them up because they look like foreign objects. But doing so they actually transport them throughout the body while releasing their cargo," says Swai.
"We have not invented a new medicine but have taken existing medicine and made it better."
Team member Boitumelo Semete says Rifanano will be targeted at government health departments in the developing world.
"TB is a poor man's disease, which means it's not a popular choice for development by commercially driven pharmaceutical companies," she says. "We are using local science and technology skills to make an existing treatment more effective and affordable for our people."
Nanotechnology is being used by scientists worldwide to improve the efficiency of treatment for a host of diseases. CSIR now plans to turn its attention to improving medications for a number of other diseases, including malaria and cancer.
The Bio Plan award ceremony was attended by Naledi Pandor, minister of science and technology, and Mamphela Ramphele, chair of the board for the new Technology Innovation Agency. The competition was organised in a joint collaboration between Emory University in the United States and South Africa's Innovation Fund.