Nano Dreams

Written by Sudhir Chowdhary | BV Mahalakshmi | Updated: Oct 8 2007, 06:17am hrs
Nanotech seems to be back on the radars of the research community. Over 100 companies in the public and private domain and 50 universities in India seem to be working hard to harness the potential of this technology. And the promise includes applications that could have an immediate impact on a wide-ranging areadiagnosis and treatment of diseases, energy storage, production and conversion, display technologies, agricultural productivity enhancement, water treatment and remediation, and opto-electronic devices.

Nanotechnology development might be at a nascent stage globally, but is not restricted to the US and the EU anymore and is spreading across the Asia-Pacific. While R&D efforts in the West are largely restricted to design and development of cutting-edge pharmaceuticals and drug delivery systems, it is centered around devices in India, says Peter Grutter, research director at NSERC Nano Innovation Platform, Canada. He adds, It doesnt surprise me that the Indian tech community is fast catching up with its peers in the realm of this cutting-edge technology. What is astounding is the pace of research and its hi-tech nature, which is being undertaken here. It could baffle many.

Can Indian companies engaged in nanotech research gain access to the much-required funds by developing synergies with their counterparts in the US, Canada, Japan or countries in the EU Globally, industry and governments now spend over $10 billion on nanotech R&D per annum. Bullish on the prospects, the Indian industry is vying to attract this funding. It is also seeking the creation of a national nanotechnology development fund of $2 billion on the lines of the US and EU funding, along with a comprehensive government policy for the sector.

A look at some of the success stories, which are close to commercialisation in India: Biotech major Bharat Biotech has developed the countrys first locally manufactured nano-biotech producta prescription topical emulsion for oestrogen therapy; Dabur Research Foundation has developed Nanoxel, a nanoparticle-based drug delivery system for cancer treatment.

Another technology that has been transferred by the University of Delhi to Panacea Biotech uses nanoparticles for the delivery of drugs to the eye. The process involves the use of nanoparticles to encapsulate non-steroidal drugs, improving the drugs bioavailability on the cornea surface.

Healthcare is clearly one of the biggest beneficiaries, but not alone. Nanotech is finding applications in water treatment and energy storage. For instance, scientists from Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi have devised a simple method to produce carbon nanotube filters that efficiently remove micro-to nano-scale contaminants from water and heavy hydrocarbons from petroleum. Made entirely of carbon nanotubes, the filters are easily manufactured, using a novel method for controlling the cylindrical geometry of the structure.

At the IISc, Bangalore, a faculty-student combine has studied, experimented and found that the liquid flow in carbon nanotubes can generate electric current. One of the most exciting applications to emerge from the discovery is the possibility of a pacemakerlike a device with nanotubes, which will sit in the human body and generate power from blood. Instead of batteries, the device will generate power by itself to regulate the defective heart rhythm. The Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), Hyderabad, is working on drug delivery methods for putting DNA in nanotubes, which are targeted towards research on cancer.

While the Indian research efforts, says eminent scientist CNR Rao, are laudable, much needs to be done to transform the current Indian nanotech labscale dream into a commercial success story. Non-availability of adequate funds often restricts Indian innovation in nanotech to the research laboratories. While the quality of research is world-class, unfortunately, it doesnt get to reach the market. This could only happen by means of a cohesive and persistent effort from the industry, academia and the government, he adds.

Oncology is the only therapeutic area wherein nanotech is being applied in India, although the potential is immense since it can be applied for any targeted therapy, says Utkarsh Palnitkar, industry leader (health sciences), Ernst & Young India.

According to Lalji Singh, director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), research at the interface between bioengineering and nanotechnology presents exciting opportunities for Indian scientists to create novel devices that can make a significant impact, both scientifically and commercially. Nanobiotechnology is emerging as a niche area to develop tools that combat life threatening diseases and ailments. In fact, CCMB has proposed to set up a nanotechnology centre and an exclusive micro imaging facility at its premises in Hyderabad.

As per statistics available, the global market for nanotech applications in the life sciences sector is poised to reach $3.4 billion by 2010, from $910 million in 2005.

This opportunity is surely music to Indian companies involved in nanotech research though few products have been revealed globally.

With the changing trends, the commercial perspective of nanotech is bound to find ways in personal health diagnostics, personalised drugs, solar energy, games and entertainment, smart clothing and robotic surgery, says Samir Brahmachari, director, Institute of Genomics and Integrative biology (IGIB). He adds, The potential of this technology to change our world is indeed truly staggering. It will affect every aspect of our lives, from medicine, to the power of our computers, the energy we require, the cars we drive, the building we live in, and even the clothes we wear. It will continuously generate new capabilities and products.

The silver lining for Indian industries is that they have started understanding the commercial viability of nanotechnology-based products. If the present research prowess is any indication, transformation of the Indian lab-scale dream into a commercial success story might soon be a reality.