N the fascinating world of international science research, few areas have the truly transformative potential of nanotechnology.

Nanotech science works at almost infinitesimally tiny scale and involves the manipulation of matter at 100nm — 1 billionth of a metre — or smaller. To put that in perspective: to build a standard sheet of paper with one nano width pages (if there was such a thing), we’d need a stack of roughly 10 million — the number of pages in 7,000 copies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

This scientific work is transformative because below a certain size threshold, special properties of matter occur, and we are now understanding how to harness those properties to improve electronics and other products, human health, environment, agriculture, engineering and many other dimensions of everyday life.

Such is the foreseen importance of the research that, on the advice of Malaysia’s Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council, the prime minister in 2013 created the specialised Malaysia Institute for Innovative Nanotechnology, or NanoMITe.

Based at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and led by eminent Professor Datuk Dr Halimaton Hamdan, NanoMITe’s mission is to engage in global scientific research collaborations to generate ideas, knowledge and products to benefit society while contributing to the national economy. Today, more than 100 collaborators at world-class academies in Asia, Europe and North America are pooling extensive expertise in a host of intriguing pursuits.

The most recent of these collaboration is formalised in a five-year memorandum of understanding between United States’ Harvard University and University of Malaya. Malaysian nanotech scientists will join a distinguished team seeking a safe, more effective way of tackling lung problems, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — the progressive, irreversible obstruction of airways causing almost 1 in 10 deaths today.

Treatment of COPD and lung cancer commonly involves chemotherapeutics and corticosteroids misted into a fine spray and inhaled, enabling direct delivery to the lungs and quick medicinal effect. However, because the particles produced by common inhalers are large, most of the medicine is deposited into the upper respiratory tract.

Dr Joseph Brain leads the team at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health developing “smart” nanoparticles that deliver appropriate levels of diagnostic and therapeutic agents to the deepest, tiniest sacs of the lung, a process potentially assisted by the use of magnetic fields. 

Malaysia’s role in the collaboration is to help ensure the safety and improve the effectiveness of nanomedicine, assessing how nanomedicine particles behave in the body, what attaches to them to form a coating, where the drug accumulates and how it interacts with target and non-target cells.

The research draws on extensive expertise at Harvard in biokinetics — determining how to administer medicine to achieve the proper dosage to impact target cells and assessing the extent to which drug-loaded nanoparticles pass through biological barriers to different organs. The studies also build on decades of experience studying the biology of macrophages — large, specialised cells that recognise, engulf and destroy target cells as part of the human immune system.

COPD affects more than 235 million people worldwide and is on the rise, with 80 per cent of cases today caused by cigarette smoking. Exacerbated by poor air quality, COPD is expected to jump from 5th to 3rd place among humanity’s most lethal health problems by 2030.

Other NanoMITe pursuits include the development of nanosensors to advance “smart farming” that uses fewer resources, such as water and fertilisers.  Malaysian scientists are also working to create light, flexible solar cells for clean, economical renewable energy, and on exploiting a huge potential resource in the country — waste biomass from oil palm trees. Finding a way to economically convert that waste into fuel for jets could add an estimated RM30 billion to the Malaysian economy,
help meet renewable energy targets and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The impact of nanotech on our use of energy could be enormous indeed. “Within 20 years,” says Halimaton, “nanotechnology could help reduce the intensity of energy needed to produce a unit of product by 45 per cent”.

The Higher Education Ministry (MOHE) is NanoMITe’s foremost financial supporter. To quote its minister, Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh: “Together, science, technology and innovation constitute the engine that will drive Malaysia’s sustainable economic development and nanotechnology research is on the cutting-edge of our pursuits. It is key to the solution of persistent problems throughout our societies, but such breakthroughs can only be achieved through collaborative, international research across a spectrum of scientific fields and converging results. Our ministry is proud to support these efforts.”

The importance of the support extended by MOHE to the NanoMITe programme cannot be overstated.  Without its financial support and trust, NanoMITe could have never have been realised. And, I believe it is a great investment in our future. 

Zakri Abdul Hamid is science adviser to the prime minister and joint-chairman of the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT)

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