Life Savers on the Cheap


Paper, kitchen utensils, tape, wax: not the future of health care most of us envision. But Harvard chemist George Whitesides is using such low-cost items to build surprisingly sophisticated medical tools. “You really need diagnostic tools to get started on any healthcare delivery,” he says, and he hopes his cheap, sturdy contraptions can help bring quality medi- cine to every neglected corner of the globe.

One two-dollar tool involves attaching some plastic tubing to an egg-beater. The tubing is filled with a patient’s blood and sealed with tape. When cranked, the eggbeater acts as a centrifuge, separating the blood into layers, a necessary step for testing for diseases like hepatitis. And to do the testing, health workers could use another tool made of paper coated with wax. The stamp-sized paper sucks up traces of urine or blood, which flow along wax channels. Sometimes the fluids wind around in a fanciful shape, and they turn bright colors if HIV, malaria, or other diseases are present. Diagnostics for All, a group working with Whitesides, plans to roll out its first field tests, for liver diseases, by December.

Whitesides is adamant that low-cost doesn’t mean low-tech. In fact, in designing his devices, he says, “The requirements are really quite rigorous: Can you develop technology that works in difficult circumstances?”

Nevertheless, Whitesides does hope to combine two-bit medicine with high-tech cellular phones. He envisions workers in rural places sending pictures—of, for instance, the colored-paper tests—from their phones to doctors, who could make diagnoses remotely.

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Sam Kean is the author of six science books, including The Disappearing Spoon and The Icepick Surgeon.


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