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Nanotech in hygiene, fake drug detection and remote diagnosis will do more for health than nanodrugs, says Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb.

All countries should be planning for nanotechnology's impact on healthcare, even if developing countries are involved in nanotechnology research mainly to find new treatments.

Nanotechnology offers solutions to recurring challenges in developing countries. These include poor data for healthcare planning, poorly trained personnel, over-prescription, poor hygiene and sanitation, counterfeit drugs, inadequate monitoring, and poor maintenance of supplies and equipment. Nanodrugs will not solve these problems. But nanotechnology can.

Nano clean

On the most fundamental level, hygiene and the upkeep of hospitals and medical equipment in developing countries will be greatly improved with antimicrobial coatings covering anything from hallway walls to bed sheets.

Such solutions can help make up for lack of proper training on cleanliness and maintenance of equipment (by offering more durable, foolproof test kits, for example). While not replacing basic hygiene, highly efficient nano-filters can be used in masks to prevent transfer of infection in high-density areas.

Counterfeit drugs sold with intentional deception — not to be confused with legitimate generic drugs — often lack active ingredients, or actually contain toxic mixtures. They pose serious health risks to consumers and great challenges to developing country healthcare systems. Again, nanotechnology is offering solutions — nanotech 'fingerprints' or encryption are being developed to separate legitimate medicines from counterfeits.

Income imbalance

The striking imbalance in healthcare for higher- and lower-income households is another systemic challenge for policymakers. Rural areas are typically less served by health care than urban centres.

Around a third of Egypt's population, for example, lives in Upper Egypt where poverty is at its highest and health status is at its worst. The time needed to transfer tests from remote areas to laboratories, and to wait for results, increases chances of mistakes and misdiagnosis. But now nanotechnology is pushing forward with lab-on-a-chip devices at costs low enough to bring the laboratory to the patient in even the most remote areas. Such inexpensive mobile laboratories can measure tens or hundreds of physiological factors in a single test, have an instant and reliable read-out, and can be operated by almost anyone. Eventually, these devices could wirelessly connect to doctors' offices, enabling a network of reliable, regular monitoring across countries and regions. And transportable, accurate devices can help establish early warning systems to limit the spread of diseases.

Healthy environment?

Truly systemic healthcare planning must also be integrated into a larger framework that tackles issues such as pollution and hazardous waste, provision of safe water sources, and other issues. Again, nanotechnology offers solutions that can ultimately benefit health.

But of course planning should not only look at nanotechnology for its benefits to healthcare systems, but also at its potential risks.

Very little is known about how nanoparticles will react when introduced to the body, what biological barriers they may pass through, and what toxic harm to humans and the environment they may cause.

Policymakers and healthcare professionals will need good information about the potential risks and benefits so as to establish effective regulation. However, nanotechnology's greatest promise for developing countries is that it offers solutions that can address gaps in the healthcare system itself. Advanced technology will not become a panacea for ailing healthcare systems, but it does give developing countries a chance to substantially improve the quality of, and access to, healthcare services.

Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb is an assistant professor at Nile University, Cairo, Egypt, and  director of the university's Centre for Nanotechnology.

This article is part of a spotlight on Nanotechnology for health.