The Size of Things to Come; Swansea Is Set to Become the Leading Centre for Cutting Edge Nanotechnology Research and Development in Europe. Plans Have Been Approved for a Pounds 21.6m Centre for Nano Health at Swansea University. Health Editor Madeleine Brindley Spoke to the Experts at the Forefront of This Technology

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Byline: Madeleine Brindley

NANOTECHNOLOGY may be the stuff of science fiction and futuristic visions of the world. But, in reality, it already plays a major part in our lives today - every mobile phone contains such minuscule technology.

The wires inside the chips which power our mobile phones are 100 nanometres thick - a nanometre is one billionth of a metre, or 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

And the notion that the power of a computer chip doubles every two years is largely due to developments in nanotechnology, which has allowed scientists and engineers to make ever smaller - and more powerful - chips.

Professor Huw Summers, chair of nanohealth at Swansea University's school of engineering, said: "If you go to a church and look at a stained glass window, the red will be made up of gold nanoparticles and the yellow of silver nanoparticles."

And Dr Steve Conlan, co-director of Swansea University's new Centre for Nano Health, said: "When you get down to that scale substances start to have different properties - gold looks red."

It is this ability to study and work with nanoparticles, which has opened up a microscopic world of possibilities, which could revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat common diseases.

It is hoped that nanotechnology will provide an answer to one of the biggest challenges facing healthcare systems around the world, not least in Wales - how can we ensure that patients are diagnosed at the earliest opportunity, when treatments are more effective, in a non-hospital, community setting?

The new pounds 21.6m Centre for NanoHealth at Swansea University will put Wales at the forefront of this nano revolution and, crucially, see research turned into potentially life-saving developments for patients.

The centre is thought to be the first of its kind in Europe and will bring together experts at the university's schools of medicine and engineering.

They in turn will work closely with clinicians to ensure that any developments can be properly tested and, if effective, will eventually be used by patients.

Prof Summers said: "As an engineer I may try to build something that will be fantastic but utterly useless - we have to have this contact with clinicians to ensure that what we are creating will work."

And Dr Conlan added: "We have a young and vibrant medical school looking at ways of bettering healthcare. Since the medical school started in 2001 we have been looking at how to take ideas forward - we've got to the point where we have so much potential that we have now outstripped our capacity, which is why we need to create this centre."

The UK's current health service - an indeed others around the world - is based, in the main, on the relatively late detection of disease and illness - in the case of cancer, many patients are diagnosed only when the tumour has already spread to other parts of their body.

When diseases are diagnosed later, the chance of cure is reduced. The vast majority of treatments available for all manner of different illnesses rely on treating and relieving symptoms and improving a person's quality of life, rather than curing the underlying problem.

The key to more effective treatments - and even cure - is thought to lie in earlier and better diagnosis of disease.

And it is here that nanotechnology could come into the fore.

The Swansea centre will focus primarily on devices and sensors capable of detecting tiny changes in the body which could indicate the very early stages of disease.

"Nanotechnology can give you more sensitive detection," Dr Conlan said. "It has the potential to detect very low levels of a protein which we can't currently do, or which you would need a huge machine to find.

"Getting patients to such tests is limited because the current technology is either very expensive or very big. …