South African researchers are finding innovative ways to purify water, and detect and treat cancer, using particles smaller than a tenth of a millionth of a metre.
At this scale, scientists can manipulate individual atoms and molecules.
New applications of nanotechnology were described at a conference at the Department of Science and Technology's minerals and metallurgy research institute, Mintek, in Johannesburg yesterday.
A Rhodes University biotechnology doctoral student, Shane Flanagan, is focusing on targeted therapy for breast cancer.
His supervisor, Professor Janice Limson, said: "The trouble with other treatments is that they tend to be non-specific, and have many side-effects."
Flanagan hopes to "get a drug to the specific area where the cancer is", which would be a great advance over chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
He is working on devising a way of loading drugs onto nanoparticles that would target breast cancer cells.
"Years of clinical testing [will be necessary] before it's available," he said.
Wits University masters student Neo Phao went on a field trip to a mine in North West where he saw acid mine effluent leaking into rivers.
"That became a motivating factor for me to go into research involving water purification," he said.
Phao is researching the use of silver nanoparticles in water purification.
Deputy Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom appealed to scientists to educate people about nanotechnology "in simple, tangible terms".
Dr Robert Tshikhudo, head of Mintek's nanotechnology innovation centre, said the organisation was patenting a multiple-disease diagnosis technology that could be used in rural communities.
Tshikhudo described the technology as the basis for an "affordable, cost-effective" primary healthcare solution that could be used in the rest of Africa.
The CEO of the National Metrology Institute of SA, Molefi Motuku said the country's nanotechnology research was tailored to finding solutions relevant to Africa.
By Harriet Mclea
Photo Shane Flanagan
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