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Biotech World Poster Award

Biotech World: Using nanotechnology to provide breast cancer warnings

UWC Biotechnology postgraduate student Mustafa Drah is passionate about cancer, and about doing something to help alleviate the suffering of cancer patients. He's been interested in biotechnology from an early stage. He is also passionate about nanotechnology (the manipulation of matter at an atomic and molecular scale) and therefore decided to do his PhD with the DST/Mintek Nanotechnology Innovation Centre (Biolabels Unit) in the Department of Biotechnology. “Nanotechnology is the science of this time, and this technology can help and serve the world, and Africa in particular.”

With these interests, it's a natural fit that when Mustafa attended the 2nd Biotechnology World Congress, held in Dubai from 18 to 21 February 2013, he presented about “The Development of Nanotechnology-based Detection Systems for the Diagnosis of Breast Cancer” – and was placed second in the Poster Award competition, impressing delegates with the research he had performed under the supervision of Dr Mervin Meyer of UWC's Department of Biotechnology. The objective of his work was to develop nanotechnology-based early detection systems for the diagnosis of breast cancer using fluorescent nanoparticles or quantum dots. Early detection of breast cancer allows for more effective treatment and management of this disease, and thus decreases the suffering and increasing the lifespan of breast cancer patients.

The international conference provided a platform for researchers in biotechnology, from university students to lecturers to Nobel Laureates, to discuss important new developments and present their latest findings in basic science, as well as applications in industry and academia. The meeting was attended by over 600 delegates from 56 countries over the world. Mustafa was able to attend lectures on topics such as biofuels, transgenic crops and protein engineering, among other things. “I found several of the presentations to be very interesting,” he says. “There was one in particular related to nanotechnology that I found fascinating, and another related to RNA and a new technique of analyzing DNA, and especially a new study about breast cancer that was related to my project. But there were many, many other interesting presentations as well.”

Mustafa developed fluorescent molecular probes based on quantum dots, and applied these probes effectively in the detection of breast cancer biomarkers. These methods are not only state-of-the-art, but also practical: compared to current methods of cancer detection, they are more cost effective, faster, can detect multiple biomarkers and does not require highly skilled technicians to perform the analysis.

These results are promising, and Mustafa has no intention of giving up on his research interests. “I like to work in the lab, not just with theory,” he says. “And I'd like to continue to use nanotechnology to diagnose and treat cancer, and to help save lives and prevent suffering.”