There is no prize for guessing why you haven’t heard about her: she is doing all this from the comfort of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), a South African centre of excellence based in Pretoria. In many ways, Dr Swai embodies our country’s collective failure to accommodate people who think and act outside the box of our comfort zones.
Not surprisingly, Hulda could well be poised to make global waves even as we at home remain locked in mundane debate over the safety and perceived dangers of farming GM (genetically modified) crops – a field of science which now pales into yesteryear in the face of new advances of ‘nano’ frontiers. But that’s a story for another day.The moral of Dr Swai’s story is not that she has set out on mission impossible; in fact, she has already marshaled a team of 19 people to her stable -- the Nanomedicine Platform for Infectious Diseases of Poverty – which includes seven post-doctorate scientists, three PhD and four Masters of Science (MSc) students, two technicians and a project manager.
She also has the backing of the top leadership in South Africa, including former president Thabo Mbeki and the country’s minister responsible for science and technology. The commitment and imagination of all these men and women have been fired from a dream of this single Tanzanian woman scientist, but their combined resolve to act as a team has since won them global support: US $100,000 in project support from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation – through its ‘Grand Challenges Exploration’ programme -- the only one of two such awards in Africa to date, and an EU approval for its provisional application for intellectual property (IP) protection of its pioneering work on a novel anti-TB drug therapy delivery system.
The size of a ‘nanometre’ is like a billionth minced particle of a metre – and ‘nanotechnology’ is defined as a branch of technology that deals with structures that are less than 100 nanometres long; it is from such miniscule fractions that Dr Swai and her team pin their hopes of finding new ways to address current shortcomings in treating poverty-related diseases (PRD s) – HIV/Aids, malaria and TB – through novel therapies made possible by nanotech. “Sub-Saharan African Africa suffers most from these poverty-related diseases … TB, HIV and malaria … and it’s the duty of scientists in this region to muster resources and act … or no one else will,” she said in an exclusive interview with this writer recently.
She adds: “The scientists in rich countries are only interested in diseases that affect them … not malaria.” She further argues that nanomedicine is a rapidly growing branch of biomedical research with great potential to radically improve health, and that therapies for diseases such as cancer which were once ‘toxic’ or exhibited poor solubility have now been rendered safe after they were reformulated as nanomedicines. Sub-Saharan Africa is currently home to over 70% of the six million annual deaths from the combined scourge of TB, HIV/Aids and malaria around the world.
She faults all four of the first-line drugs in current use against PRD s, saying all they all fall short on solubility, bioavailability, safety, efficacy, stability and resistance. “Despite these shortfalls, too few drugs are being developed for PRD s,” she says, adding: “those who drive the drug research and development (R&D) agenda in the pharmaceutical firms would only invest in drugs that ensure a good return on their investment.”
That casts a near-total eclipse over already dismal R&D funding for developing new drugs to treat the diseases that affect the poor in Africa and elsewhere in the Third World, she argues. “The onus to develop innovative PRD therapies remains on those most affected,” she says. Dr Swai and team are now set on a mission with that singular purpose: applying nanomedicine to address the shortfalls of PRD therapies. Using TB as a case study, she is developing a nanomedicine-based “sustained and controlled release drug delivery system (DD S) for orally administered TB drugs.”
To date, Dr Swai has demonstrated in a mice-TB infected model that equal doses of the drug in current use – when administered in her patented nanomedicine-based DD S -- could be taken just once instead of swallowing it every day for six to nine running. Instead, she now aims to reduce the current treatment run to just two months, without the inherent toxic side-effects and that, with her novel approach, patients would be more likely to treatment regimens. “This will also lead to a dramatic cost reduction … and curb of transmission of TB … as it would also significantly reduce drug-resistant strains,” she says.
As a platform technology, Dr Swai’s approach could also be applied to other therapeutic compounds with similar challenges as TB drugs. As a result, she is also developing ‘nano’ reformulations for Africa’s other big killers – the anti-retrovirals and anti-malarials. These will soon to be followed by new ventures into sleeping sickness (trypanosomiasis), bilharzia (schistosomiasis) and river blindness (Onchercerciasis), all of them supported with a combined WHO-EU initiative.
In its official brochures, the CISR says: “We propose the use of nanomedicine to address the current shortfalls of PRD therapies …(the use of) ‘nanoparticles’ facilitate the subcellular and activity of the drugs in infected areas, addressing the major shortafalls of failed HIV/Aids, malaria and TB therapies. These ‘carrier systems’ will also reduce unwanted systemic side effects associated with conventional free drugs,” In the words of Dr Swai, the encapsulated drugs would be conveyed – in much the same way ‘heat-seeking missiles’ are fired -- directly to the affected cells where they would attack the offending virus on sight.
And, there is a bonus, too: the reformulated drugs look deceptively like the viruses they seek to destroy, she says.“This approach will increase the availability of the drug at the target cells … enabling reduction of the currently high dose and dose frequency, treatment time and side effects associated with PRD therapies. “We envisage that nanotechnology-based drug delivery will improve patient compliance to treatment, treat drug resistant cases more effectively and reduce the infection rates. Our approach is generic … any drug (anti-malarial, antiretroviral, anti-cancer, anti-TB …) can encapsulated,” the CISR says about its “Nano Drug Delivery” projects.
Among these projects is the “CISR Encapsulation and delivery Research Group” led by Dr Swai.“We envisage that our drug delivery system (DD S) will enable easier entry, slow release and enhanced retention of the antibiotic in the cells, hence reducing frequency of their intake from daily to once a week … and lessen the total standard treatment time from six to two months,” she says.Hulda holds a PhD in Biomedical Materials Science from the University of London, Queen Mary and Westerfield College – which she did part-time (1995-2000); an MSc in Technology and development in Chemical Engineering (University of London, Imperial College of Science and Technology, 1984-85) and a BSc General from the University of Dar es Salaam (1977-1980). Hulda has many arrows to her bow, and she’s still counting.
From a mere concept, she single-handedly initiated the TB ‘nano drug delivery project’ for which she is now principal investigator. Her core project output, namely, the reformulated drug delivery system for the four first-line TB drugs now holds real hope for victims of tuberculosis in sub-Saharan Africa. Further work in nano-based delivery of anti-malaria drugs and ARVs also promises real-value-for-health across the continent.
James Mpinga is a freelance writer on science, environment and development issues based in Dar es Salaam.