Funky SA science

2012-10-13 16:16

Every two years, the CSIR allows a peek into what their scientists have come up with. Yolandi Groenewald takes a look at some of their new, life-changing inventions

1 Nanomedicine
One of the biggest problems in fighting tuberculosis (TB) is convincing patients to stick to their medicine regimes – a daily cocktail of drugs for up to nine months. But the CSIR believes it may have found the solution in nanomedicine.

Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular level, is breaking new frontiers.

Commercial pharmaceutical applications include new ways to deliver drugs to areas in the body where they are most needed.

Wealthy companies have focused on potentially lucrative diseases, and illnesses affecting poorer people, like TB, have been neglected.

But CSIR researcher Belle Nyamboli says: “We envisage our drug delivery system will target infected cells and enable easier entry.

It will create slow release and advanced retention of the antibiotics in the cells, hence reducing the current dose frequency from daily to a once-a-week intake of antibiotics.”

The treatment period will also be reduced from six to two months. They aim to expand their research into HIV/Aids.

They hypothesise that a once-a-week dose will minimise side effects and dose levels, and improve patient antiretroviral compliance. They currently need daily doses, as with TB.

Every two years, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research allows a peek into what their scientists have come up with.

2 Balding cure

Can the Elandsboontjie cure male pattern baldness? The CSIR thinks so.

In partnership with health product company Afriplex, the CSIR plans to launch a new natural hair-loss cosmetic next year.

The Elandsboontjie, or Elephantorrhiza elephantine, is found on South African grasslands.

It has been used by sangomas for hundreds of years to cure a range of ailments, including diarrhoea, dysentery, stomach disorders, haemorrhoids and perforated ulcers. But its popularity as a skin disease treatment piqued researchers’ interest.

Extracts from the plant have been produced at the CSIR’s Biosciences unit, and Sasol ChemCity has assisted in formulating treatment shampoos and scalp massage serums.

Researchers say an enzyme found in the plant – which converts testosterone to dihydrotestosterone – got them excited because it can be used to treat male pattern baldness.

The extract also showed potent antioxidant activity that was greater than in green tea extract when tested, the researchers say.

3 Pudu
Cash-in-transit guards are set upon by robbers who force them off the road and into a ditch. The robbers move on the overturned van and break it up – finding not heaps of cash, but Pudu.

CSIR scientists and their new rock-hard foam are foiling robberies.

The idea that led to Pudu, or Polyurethane Dispensing Unit, was born 10 years ago at the height of the cash-in-transit robbery scourge when a security company approached the CSIR to develop solutions.

When a cash van topples over, the foam is released within a minute. Within another 60 seconds, it is rock hard – creating a wall between the robbers and the money.

Robbers simply do not have the time and means to cut through the concrete foam and instead flee, says CSIR manager of technology transfer Brian Mphahlele.

The security company loved the idea and the CSIR has spent the past couple of years fine-tuning the concept, before patenting it.

The results speak for themselves, says Mphahlele, as heists have declined wherever it has been used and the product has taken off across the world.

4 Facial scanning
A far-reaching CSIR project involves scanning mine workers’ faces before they go underground to read their state of mind and perhaps save lives.

Miners in South Africa have to endure some of the highest stress levels around, and CSIR researcher Jodi Hodgskiss wants to understand just how bad it is.

“Stress and fatigue are problematic in the mining industry due to the harsh environment and the high risk of accidents and injury,” Hodgskiss says.

Stress and fatigue are associated with poor health, increased compensation costs, increased absenteeism and reduced productivity.

“Screening for it in the mine workers before they enter the workplace could help to improve health and safety,” she says.

The study makes use of FaceReader software that analyses facial expressions, which are then coded into six categories: happy, sad, angry, scared, surprised, disgusted and neutral.

Already the study has shown the workers’ facial expressions differed before and after their shifts, and different expressions were evident in groups with different levels of perceived stress.

5 Camouflage
Despite how they may look, the khaki camouflage patterns on SA National Defence Force soldiers’ uniforms are anything but random.

In fact, the camouflage used on uniforms and armoured vehicles such as the Olifant tank, the Rooikat and the Rooivalk attack helicopter is the work of careful research.

CSIR Optronics researcher Johannes Baumbach and his team are always thinking about how to hide vehicles better as technology becomes more advanced.

Using software and computer automation, researchers are able to develop patterns for the vehicles and aircraft based on different views.

The size and shape of the patterns take into account the operational profile of the vehicle, where it will operate, as well as the sort of threats it will face.

The CSIR scientists explain that conventional camouflage relies on three basic elements – colour, pattern and texture – that should match that of the environment.

But more critical is how the brain processes this and a large part of the team’s work is on the psychophysical aspects of vision.

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