11 December 2012

Zimbabwe Backs Nanotechnology As Route to New Drugs

Cape Town — The Zimbabwean government has shown signs of embracing nanotechnology, earmarking it for extensive funding from the science ministry's 2013 budget for new programmes.

According to Rungano Karimanzira, director of commercialisation of research and development at the ministry, 60 per cent of the new programme funding has been allocated to nanotechnology - a move announced with the unveiling of the national budget last month (16 November).

After years of political instability and international isolation, Zimbabwe now aims to revive science and use nanotechnology to research and produce drugs, particularly treatments for tuberculosis (TB) and HIV/AIDS.

Nanotechnology has far-reaching benefits for livelihoods and economies, Karimanzira tells SciDev.Net.

The country's first national nanotechnology programme was launched in October by science and technology development minister Heneri Dzinotyiwei during the opening of the Zimbabwe Nanotechnology Centre (ZINC) at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare.

Dzinotyiwei said the programme will focus on developing medicinal drugs, and will identify and undertake studies in nanomedicine geared towards bringing benefits to the entire country.

"We hope that we can ultimately dedicate around US$1 million to the nanotechnology programme," he said.

Charles Maponga, director of the University of Zimbabwe's School of Pharmacy and head of the nanotechnology programme, says the government had spent more than US$160,000 on renovating the nanotechnology laboratory, establishing its coordination committee and supporting postgraduate research fellowships.

Maponga also explains that the mobilisation of funding from international donors and local companies will be accompanied by efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of nanotechnology among key stakeholders such as policymakers and private sector investors.

"The aim of the ZINC programme, operating as part of the national nanotechnology programme, is to refocus research efforts towards nanotechnology to enhance the country's development," Maponga tells SciDev.Net.

The university will team up with the Chinhoyi University of Technology in northern Zimbabwe to work on nanomedicine programmes focused on TB and HIV/AIDS.

International partnerships also underpin the new nanotechnology programmes. ZINC will collaborate with nanotechnology researchers at the University at Buffalo in New York, US, as well as Oxford and Manchester universities in the UK, to build a long-term international research and training platform to assist Zimbabwe. It also plans to extend these activities to other African countries in the future

Christopher Chetsanga, a biotechnologist and former president of the Zimbabwe Academy of Sciences, hopes the programme will be given independent status as soon as it has developed sufficient scope and generated results to justify its autonomy and remove the need for baby-sitting by the ministry.

"The production of medicinal nanomolecules will provide medical drugs that will be prescribed by doctors throughout Zimbabwe to the benefit of people at all levels of society," says Chetsanga.

During the launch of Zimbabwe's second science, technology and innovation policy in June, South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research offered to collaborate with Zimbabwe on nanotechnology specifically related to the formulation of more effective TB drugs and antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV/AIDS.

Maponga says this bilateral collaboration will be developed under the guidance of the science ministry and through the Southern African Development Community programme.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Sub-Saharan Africa desk.

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