Thursday, November 25, 2010

Small tech with big promise for healthcare

Nanotechnology should not suffer the same fate as GM — potential health and environmental hazards should be monitored and regulated early on. David Dickson, director of SciDev.Net, discusses the promise of nanomaterials. 

If a new and potentially hazardous field of technological innovation is to flourish in a social environment,  two factors are essential, even if the hazards are still relatively speculative.

The first is a clear demonstration of its value to individual welfare, creating a demand for what it promises.

The second is evidence that the potential dangers can be adequately monitored, and regulations put in place to minimise the chance that harmful effects will occur.

Nanotechnology for health: Facts and figures

Can developing countries use nanotechnology to improve health? Priya Shetty looks at nanomedicine's promise at a SciDev report.

Nanotechnology — the science of the extremely small — holds enormous potential for healthcare, from delivering drugs more effectively, diagnosing diseases more rapidly and sensitively, and delivering vaccines via aerosols and patches.

Nanotechnology is the science of materials at the molecular or subatomic level. It involves manipulation of particles smaller than 100 nanometres (one nanometre is one-billionth of a metre) and the technology involves developing materials or devices within that size — invisible to the human eye and often many hundred times thinner than the width of human hair. The physics and chemistry of materials are radically different when reduced to the nanoscale; they have different strengths, conductivity and reactivity, and exploiting this could revolutionise medicine.

For example, a major challenge of modern medicine is that the body doesn't absorb the entire drug dose given to a patient. Using nanotechnology, scientists can ensure drugs are delivered to specific areas in the body with greater precision, and the drugs can be formulated so that the active ingredient better permeates cell membranes, reducing the required dose.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Boston University researchers create novel rapid biosensor

The portable detector platform, comprising plasmonic nanohole arrays (PNAs), can be adapated for hospitals, malls, and airports

A team of researchers headed by Hatice Altug (ECE) and John Connor (Microbiology) has developed a novel biosensor that directly detects live viruses from biological samples even without sample preparation. They have reported on this breakthrough in the November 5 online edition of Nano Letters.

The biosensor comprises plasmonic nanohole arrays (PNAs), or arrays of apertures with diameters of about 250 to 350 nanometers on metallic films, that transmit light more strongly at certain wavelengths.

A live virus (e.g., Ebola, monkeypox, or smallpox virus) in blood or serum, for example, can bind to the sensor surface. A change in the effective refractive index in the close vicinity of the sensor will shift the resonance frequency of the light transmitted through the PNAs. The degree of this shift reveals the presence and the concentration of the virus in the solution.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Symposium aims to place health systems as cornerstone in health research

The First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research, organized by the WHO this week (16–19 November) in Montreux, Switzerland, aims to foster international studies on health systems. T.V. Padma reports on SciDev.Net.

The First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research is expected to establish health systems research as a "third pole" of health research, alongside biomedical and clinical research.

Research on how to improve health delivery and health outcomes has long been neglected and must be put on researchers' agendas, a WHO expert has said ahead of the first global meeting on such research.

Tim Evans, WHO's outgoing assistant director general for information, evidence and research, told SciDev.Net that scientific research is needed to ensure that everyone benefits from healthcare delivery.

The symposium aims to dispel the idea that healthcare delivery is a 'common sense' problem unrelated to high-quality science, said Evans, who chairs the meeting's steering committee.

The meeting is expected to be "a watershed" in sharing evidence on how to use science to accelerate health coverage, he added.

Over 1,300 researchers from 100 countries will gather to provide evidence-based information to policymakers on how to expand the reach of healthcare systems in developing countries.

WHO endorses MODS, NRI and CRI to assess TB in resource-limited settings

In a policy statement by the World Health Organization on July 2010, MODS, CRI, and NRA assays have been given the vote of confidence by the international agency for use by laboratory officials and health care providers for diagnosis of MDR-TB (multi-drug resistant tuberculosis) cases.

Colorimetric redox indicator (CRI) methods comprise growing Mycobacterium tuberculosis isolates in conventional culture. A microscopically observed drug susceptibility (MODS) assay comprises observing micro-colony growth and typical cord-formation of M. tuberculosis in sealed microtitre plates containing liquid culture medium, through an inverted microscope. Nitrate reductase assay (NRA), on the other hand, involves a direct test on smear-positive sputum specimens and an indirect test on M. tuberculosis isolates grown from conventional solid culture.

All three methods exhibit high specificity and sensitivity. These criteria, among others, have led the WHO to recommend the use of selected non-commercial culture and DST methods as an interim solution in resource-constrained settings, under clearly defined programmatic and operational conditions, while capacity for genotypic and/or automated liquid culture and DST are still being developed.

Reference: World Health Organization. 2010, July. Non-Commercial Culture And Drug-Susceptibility Testing Methods For Screening Of Patients At Risk Of Multi-Drug Resistant Tuberculosis: Policy Statement. Retrieved November 15, 2010. Accessed at

Mixed success in science for developing world, says UNESCO

Developing countries more than doubled their output of scientific publications between 2002 and 2008, but their share of patent applications remained extremely low. Mico Tatalovic reports on SciDev.Net.

The developing world's share of science publications rose from a fifth to nearly a third during this time, according to the 'UNESCO Science Report 2010: Current Status of Science around the World'.

The report, published today (10 November), assessed the number of publications recorded in Thomson Reuters' Science Citation Index between 2002 and 2008, during which the total number of global science publications increased by around 35 per cent.

Much of the increase in the developing world is because of the growth of Brazil, China and India. The report found that least developed countries (LDCs), a subset of developing countries, have also increased their publications output — by 80 per cent. But this is from the starting point of 2,000 papers a year, compared with the total developing country output of 165,000 papers, and thus represents only 0.4 per cent of the world's total output.

Why has the Global Forum for Health Research collapsed?

Poor countries striving to improve their health systems deserve better than the unexplained implosion of the Global Forum for Health Research. Beverly Peterson Stearns reports on SciDev.Net.

Barely a year ago nearly 1,000 people from 80 countries gathered enthusiastically at the Palacio de Convenciones in Havana, Cuba, under the banner 'Innovating for the health of all'. More than half came from low- and middle-income countries. They were attending the annual meeting  of the non-profit organisation the Global Forum for Health Research (GFHR), eager to hear about inventive and effective ways to conduct research, and urgently seeking to improve health in their countries.

Now, less than a year after taking office, the forum's executive director, Anthony Mbewu, has resigned, and the forum itself is in failing health. The prognosis is poor. Very few remain in its Geneva secretariat. Many employees have quit, been fired, or have retired early.

Time for explanations

Why did this international organisation, set up in 1998, founder so spectacularly and so quickly when the need for health research remains so great? More importantly, what now are the prospects for ordinary people in developing countries? They pinned their hopes on local leaders in health and research who, in turn, sought guidance from experts at the annual forums.

South Africa's Sunday Times, which reported Mbewu's resignation on 31 October, said that his appointment as head of the forum had drawn criticism from HIV/AIDS activists. They had charged Mbewu, the former president of South Africa's Medical Research Council, with supporting the Mbeki government's denial of HIV and AIDS.

But in Havana the controversy was largely unrecognised. Mbewu responded to a reporter's question about the criticisms saying, "I'm a researcher, not an activist." At the time, that seemed a sufficient answer for his fellow health researchers too. They seemed satisfied that Mbewu's appointment by the forum — a respected organisation originally set up under the auspices of the WHO — meant his qualifications had been well-vetted.

A year on, many of the health leaders and researchers who gathered in Havana will convene in Montreux, Switzerland, at the First Global Symposium on Health Systems Research (16–19 November).  Will any of them probe the GFHR's collapse — or will they politely not mention it?

The Foundation Council, the forum's policy- and decision-making body, should bear responsibility for explaining what has happened to this small but once-vibrant organisation, to which so many from developing countries looked for guidance. But the responsibility is not theirs alone. The entire health research community has a duty to not turn a blind eye to the forum's failure.

A betrayal of trust?

I was in Havana as a freelance writer drafting a report on that meeting, similar to others I wrote for the Forum about  previous meetings in Mexico City (2004), Mumbai (2005), Cairo, (2006), Beijing (2007) and Bamako (2008). The great strength of these annual meetings was making well-known health researchers, public health experts, economists and innovators accessible to the people who need their help the most.

The meetings were moved each year to a new venue. That allowed field workers, students, community physicians and academics in some of the world's poorest countries to attend. There were a few large plenary sessions and many small group sessions that encouraged interaction. Even people without computers could be part of this network.

Impressive young people from poor countries sat in discussion groups next to rich entrepreneurs, respected academics and government decision-makers, all talking about problems held in common. I listened with growing optimism that progress in global health could come through collaboration that reached across the divides of poverty, borders, and politics.

The meetings' official programmes highlighted the Millennium Development Goals; combating disease and poverty; equitable access; capacity building and health systems; and innovation.

But discussions ranged much further and deeper, covering subjects some countries would rather not have highlighted: an obesity epidemic in Mexico, crushing poverty in India, female genital mutilation in Egypt, HIV/AIDS in China, counterfeit drugs in Africa, and embargoes and naturopathic medicines in Cuba. Each annual meeting was, in the fullest sense of the word, a forum.

I was astonished by how quickly and quietly the health of the GFAR deteriorated.  I heard reports as the staff diminished.  I read that employees were bringing lawsuits alleging unfair dismissal.  Gill Samuels, chair of the forum's 20-member foundation council, confirmed in an email to me that Mbewu had resigned. But she denied that there are legal cases pending. "Nothing else to add at the moment," she wrote in answer to my query.

Nothing to add? I hope there will soon be a considerable amount to add. Samuels, who comes from the pharmaceutical industry, and the others who sit on the council and come from foundations, universities, governments and institutes, are responsible for appointing the director and overseeing the forum's budget and plan of action.

Their explanations — or lack of them — will affect the credibility not only of the forum, but of any existing or future organisation seeking the trust of researchers and of those depending on them.

Beverly Peterson Stearns is a freelance writer and author. She lives in the United States.

Reference: Stearns, B. 2010. Why has the Global Forum for Health Research collapsed? Retrieved November 15, 2010. Accessed at SciDev.Net's website at: