Nanotechnology to fight against Infectious Diseases

The introduction of antibiotics 70 years ago meant a paradigm shift in the fight against infectious diseases. However, with each passing decade, bacteria that resist not only single, but multiple, antibiotics – making some diseases particularly hard to control – have become increasingly widespread.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, two great challenges related to infectious diseases pose a threat to global health: multidrug resistance and the need for fast, accurate diagnostics to control epidemics and pandemics. The latter is particularly true in developing countries, where there is no deployed health system guaranteeing access to central laboratories and highly skilled professionals.

Squashing superbugs

The emergence of superbugs has made it imperative to search for novel methods that can combat microbial resistance. Thus, the application of nanotechnology in pharmaceuticals and microbiology is gaining prominence as a method to prevent catastrophic consequences. Nanotechnology-based approaches are advantageous to improve various preventive measures such as coatings and filtration. Moreover, nano-based drug carriers for existing antibiotics enhance their bioavailability and increase their target specificity. Also, the combination of nanoparticles along with antibiotics makes them more lethal for microorganisms. To exchange knowledge and best practices in an effort to advance these technologies, the NMP-AMR cluster of European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) projects has gathered PneumoNP, FormAMP and NAREB – three large consortia working to develop novel nanotechnology-based antimicrobial approaches.

All eyes on ending ebola

A clear and unfortunate example of the acute need for the capabilities of nanotechnology to enhance and speed up pathogen detection, and to operate at the point of need, is the recent Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. The infectious disease spread rapidly in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, an epidemic that was majorly aided by the countries’ poor healthcare infrastructure and thus inability to deal with Ebola’s slow presenting symptoms, according to a recent report from the International Development Committee; the parliamentary watchdog for the UK Government’s Department for International Development.

Diagnosing Ebola in a person who has been infected for only a few days is difficult because early symptoms, such as fever, are nonspecific. Ebola virus is detected in blood only after onset of such symptoms, which accompany the rise in circulating virus within the patient’s body. It may take up to three days after symptoms start for the virus to reach detectable levels.

EbolaCheck, led by the University of Westminster and funded by the Wellcome Trust, aims to change this. It is starting to test bodily fluids, such as saliva, for Ebola in a single process, providing results within 40 minutes – over eight times quicker than some existing laboratory techniques. It is based on a combination of a validated, proprietary technology for rapid, direct polymerase chain reaction (PCR) on whole blood samples and kinetic reverse transcription-PCR laboratory diagnostic assays that are already used worldwide to confirm Ebola infection. It is expected that early prototypes of the tool will be ready for sample patient testing by May 2015.

In parallel, researchers at Boston University’s College of Engineering and School of Medicine are working on a nanomedicine project funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) that aims to develop novel diagnostics for Ebola and Lassa fever, an acute viral hemorrhagic fever first described in 1969 in Nigeria. In a public-private collaboration with the company NextGen Assays, the team has created a device that detects the disease using a single drop of blood from the patient, by shining light on viral nanoparticles bound to a silicon chip.

Minimising malaria’s might

After many years in the battle against malaria, and despite renewed commitments since the 1990s, it remains a predominant cause of death in many areas of sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Southeast Asia. Nano-enabled targeted delivery offers great potential for the treatment of malaria and other intracellular infections. Liposomes, nanoemulsions, dendrimers and chitosan nanocarriers show great promise; for instance, by improving solvation and targeting of one of the most powerful antimalarial drugs, artemisinin. However, there is a need for increased funding in order to reach the World Health Organization (WHO) target of US $6 billion required for effective control of the disease, and to bring these new approaches closer to the clinical stages.

Nanotechnology to push the bounds of medicine

As a new set of technologies in the medical repertoire, nanotechnology has the potential to transform the specificity and efficacy of existing drugs as well as facilitate novel health tools. Although introduction of these new nanotechnologies alone is not enough to overcome existing problems with treating epidemics and pandemics in developing countries, as effective health infrastructures are still lacking, these exciting developments should be put in place sooner rather than later.

This may be the catalyst that lowers the number of people who contract malaria each year, slows the spread of the recent Ebola crisis, puts an end to the devastation caused by HIV/AIDS and generally stops infectious diseases in their tracks.

Article published by Dr Arantxa Sanz from the Institute of Bioengineering of Catalonia, Executive Manager of NanoMed Spain and member of the European Technology Platform on Nanomedicine in the International Innovation publication (Issue 176)