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Nanotechnology has been harnessed to fight tuberculosis (TB) in the developing world by boosting drug delivery, says a South African-led research consortium.

Led by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), researchers from the consortium hope to combat the spread of drug-resistant TB strains. They announced their results at the World Nano Economic Congress 2007 in Pretoria this week (23 April).

Tuberculosis is currently treated via a slow release of drugs over an extended period of time. The new technique can reduce the number of times drugs have to be administered and thereby help patients meet their treatment needs.

TB sufferers currently take a daily dose of up to four drugs. In developing countries such as South Africa, they can find it difficult to stick to the six-month-long treatment regime, which requires them to travel long distances to reach the nearest health clinics. Many fail to comply with treatment regimes as a result.

Over the long term, such non-compliance has resulted in the emergence of multi-drug resistant and extra-drug resistant TB.

Using nanotechnology, researchers have devised new drug delivery method, that may solve this problem.

Lead researcher Hulda Swai, from CSIR's Centre for Polymer Technology, said that in preclinical trials her team have created nanoparticles containing four frontline anti-TB drugs.

This was achieved by dividing an emulsion containing the TB drugs into solid particles in the nano-size range of 200nm (about two per cent of the width of a human hair). The drugs become trapped inside the particles.

Tests showed that the nanoparticles release the drugs into the bloodstream at a slower rate and for a more prolonged period (up to ten days) when compared with drugs administered in the normal way.

Swai is aiming for a shorter treatment regimen and a single dose drug application that will last for several days or weeks.

Professor Ben Marais of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Stellenbosch University says, "There is a desperate need for research into TB drug therapy. We would welcome any new technology which improved compliance and reduced the risk of resistance."

Swai says the research is important because existing drugs can be re-packaged in a way that will improve delivery and patient compliance to treatment. Her team hope that this technology, by encouraging patient compliance, will help curb the emergence of drug-resistant TB which, says Swai, is difficult to treat at present. 

Research is now moving into the animal phase of testing and Swai hopes to have a product on the market within five years.

She says, "We aim, by using TB as a model disease, to set up a platform in South Africa where we will encapsulate both current and novel therapeutic drugs for malaria, AIDS and cancer, as well as for other neglected diseases that affect not only South Africa, but Africa as a whole."