Polymer research in Australia is leading to more efficient cancer drugs, say Ezio Rizzardo and David Solomon of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
The organic chemists have been awarded Australia's highest science honour for their revolutionary work in changing the structures of polymer chains. Their discoveries could also help develop longer lasting paint, reusable contact lenses and smoother lubricants.
Professor Rizzardo, 67, an Italian-born scientist said he was very excited about one application of the polymer research, which will help oncologists deliver cancer drugs to the site of the tumour.
''These polymers are designed in such a way that it delivers the therapeutic agent to the cancer site.''
The pair's research established that by controlling the structure, composition and properties of polymers and plastics, it was possible to essentially custom-build plastics.
So broad are the applications that the work has already been adopted by 60 companies, including multi-nationals L'Oreal, IBM, Dulux and DuPont. The research is also an integral part of more than 500 patents, with the potential to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties.
On the new contact lenses, Prof Rizzardo said, ''The lenses need to transmit oxygen and water to keep the eye healthy, they need to be soft and comfortable and completely transparent and physically strong. You can wear them for a long, long time - these products are very close to coming on the market,'' he said.
''Once we stumbled on it we knew it was something very important,'' Professor Rizzardo told The Age
. ''We knew we were now able to control [the molecules] as distinct from the spontaneous process that was taking place before.''
Now a professorial fellow at Melbourne University, Professor Solomon - who hired Professor Rizzardo as a CSIRO post-doctoral fellow in 1976 - said the two techniques developed at CSIRO rewrote the theory and provided the practical examples. ''Prior to that it was not thought that you could actually do this,'' the 81-year-old said. ''It's a basic technology which means that the applications are really left up to the imagination of the scientist. They have a new tool to engineer the way they put together molecules.''
Director of the Materials Research laboratory at the University of California, Craig Hawker, said the pair's discoveries had rewritten the book on polymer synthesis.
''Their creativity reaches out far beyond the stellar science. I see no limits to what can come from this work and am very proud to be able to say that it is homegrown Australian science through and through,'' Professor Hawker said.