Nanomalaria: a conversation with Dr Xavier Fernàndez Busquets
Dr Xavier Fernàndez Busquets is the Head of the Nanomalaria Joint Unit at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) and the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal). After a couple of postdoctoral fellows, in 2001 he obtained a Ramón y Cajal grant to start his research on Nanomedicine. Some years later, his research aims moved towards applying nanotechnology to fight malaria.
Q: How would you define nanotechnology and where do you think it could fit in the fight against a disease like malaria?
Nanotechnology is the ensemble of methods that permit the manipulation of objects, detection of structures, and fabrication of materials in the nanometre range, i.e, within the dimensions of molecules (as opposed to the micrometre range which is within the dimensions of cells). Since the processes involved in the malaria pathophysiology are known at the molecular scale, nanotechnology can be used to operate on them for prophylactic and therapeutic purposes.
Q: Which are the benefits of adding nanotechnology as part of the therapeutic arsenal against malaria?
After one hundred years of using classical therapeutic (drugs) and prophylactic (vaccines) approaches that have not succeeded in eradicating malaria, nanotechnology can offer new solutions. Since they can operate at the molecular level, nanomaterials can be more precise in reaching a particular drug target, or they can be designed to present several antigens to immune cells for the production of a new generation of better vaccines.
Q: Antimalarial drug-resistance poses one of the greatest threats to malaria elimination. In your opinion how nanotechnology could minimize this resistance emergence?
Drug resistance evolves when we cannot deliver to the parasites a sufficiently high dose to kill them rapidly. This happens if the drug is not specifically targeted to the pathogen and therefore it distributes throughout the body, which imposes a maximum overall dose that does not trigger undesirable side effects. If we can encapsulate drugs in nanoparticles carrying binding molecules for specific receptors present only on cells infected by the malaria parasite: bingo!
Q: Evidence suggests that nanotechnology had been implemented for cancer treatment with good results. Would you expect similar results for malaria?
Because cancer is a disease prominent in high per capita income regions, as soon as a promising anticancer nanotechnological tool appears, the industry shows a clear interest in its development because they see perspectives of recovering their investment. We have some nanomaterials for malaria treatment that are highly promising but so far we have not found an industrial partner interested in pushing forward the preclinical and clinical trials required to advance in the medicine pipeline. I still have hope.
Q: Could you explain us which challenges you think are the main ones when trying to implement nanotechnology in the malaria field?
A significant part of the public budget going to grants for cancer investigations could possibly be used in preventive campaigns to deter people from smoking or eating unhealthy food, which would release funds to be invested in other less favoured health needs. Most of the population suffering from malaria did not voluntarily choose to have the disease, and it might be reasonably argued that they should deserve more per capita medical resources than, say, tobacco consumers. On the other hand, clinically-oriented institutes should be less timid in supporting basic research groups studying the potential applications of new nanotechnological tools to malaria and other infectious diseases.
Q: You had been in this field for around 10 years. How do you see the implementation of nanotechnology in this sickness? Are the results positive so far?
Some of the basic research results obtained in this field are highly promising, but now we need to capture the interest of clinicians to look at them critically and establish collaborations with the medical sector in order to adapt this new technology to the requirements of its deployment as a treatment for people. And of course, a valiant industrial partner investing part of its profit on malaria research would be an essential asset; luckily we have some example of this industrial commitment, but more should follow.
Q: In your opinion, what next steps should the malaria community take?
The different actors in our community are doing their best. From my experience, patients and researchers in malaria endemic areas are those showing the highest interest in the application to malaria of these new nanotechnological tools. Our fellow researchers are of course receptive to any new development that can make use of their basic research findings and contribute to improve their applied research efforts. Perhaps the main gap that has to be closed is that between lab research and clinical application. But we are all working hard on that and I am optimistic because we have a wonderful malaria community.
Dr Xavier Fernàndez Busquets is the Head of the Nanomalaria Joint Unit at the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) and the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal). Know more about his research in MESA Track.