WA feature: Silicon valley in the west

By Pete Young
Tuesday, 28 May, 2002

Perth biotech pSiVida has reversed the normal flow of events by bringing in offshore technology and funding its further development out of West Australia.

Through its UK operating company pSiMedica, pSiVida has patents on a porous form of silicon, BioSilicon, which is potentially valuable to the biomedical industry.

pSiVida's initial focus is on controlled, slow-release drug delivery but the material has broader applications in orthopaedics and medical devices.

BioSilicon can be thought of as a honeycomb, 90 per cent composed of air. Early applications centre around using it for drug delivery.

Porosifying the silicon massively increases its effective surface area. A piece of biosilicon with a surface area of three square inches hides an actual working area of a soccer field, according to Gavin Rezos, managing director of pSiVida.

When that honeycomb is filled with drugs and taken orally by a patient, the porous silicon becomes a biodegradable delivery vehicle whose dissolved residues of silicate acid are handled normally in the kidneys.

Later applications envisage intelligent delivery systems, says Rezos.

"We have a patent application in which one side of the silicon is a drug reservoir and the reverse side holds a battery the size of a pinhead and circuitry."

That turns it into a "smart" drug delivery device which can function as a diagnostic tool able to release its drug payload as required.

Silicon has other features beside biocompatibility which make it attractive as a drug delivery vehicle.

It is abundant as a base element and thanks to 30 years of manufacturing experience by the computer industry, pharmaceutical grade silicon can be made for three to nine cents a gram compared to $65 per gram for carbon nanotubes.

It also bonds with bone tissue which opens a window of potential applications in implant packaging and orthopedics, according to Rezos.

For example, implanting the silicon in damaged tissue and putting a charge across it could speed up bone growth.

Besides heading the 19-month-old, ASX-listed company, Rezos is its largest shareholder. A former Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp executive who spent 18 years abroad, many in the UK, he's one of the growing band of expats returning to their WA roots.

The company's technology was originally developed by the UK defence establishment and its other major shareholder is the UK government.

Rezos got the attention of investors in the UK and Australia and imported the technology to Perth because it is a cost-effective centre for development work.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) has listed biomaterials and bioengineering as one of the four core areas in which its grants will be made and pSiVida does not have a lot of competition in its field, Rezos says.

Perth's time-zone placement also gives it an advantage over Sydney when it comes to keeping it touch with pSiVida's international business contacts in Asia, Europe and the US, he says.

Rezos characterises the current stage of WA's bioindustry as "early days".

"Historically there hasn't been a lot of financial support so technologies developed in universities here have ended up being funded overseas or in eastern Australia but that is slowly changing.

"The WA government is indicating a lot of willingness (to support local initiatives) but without making any real dollars available in terms of funding...it is a very slow process."

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