Chemist tackles complex problems with simplicity

A unique philosophy helps Harvard’s George Whitesides develop new diagnostic devices

Harvard’s George Whitesides

PROBLEM SOLVER  Harvard’s George Whitesides holds a handful of simple, paper-based diagnostic devices.

Volker Steger/Science Source

Early in his career, George M. Whitesides did the kind of chemistry you might call ordinary: making new molecules, figuring out the mechanisms of chemical reactions, tuning instruments to tell one compound from another. But in the last 10 to 15 years, Whitesides has set his sights on bigger problems, like creating cheap, simple and robust devices for diagnosing disease in the developing world.

With his research group at Harvard University, Whitesides has made patterned, postage stamp–sized pieces of paper printed with dyes and proteins. Place a drop of blood, urine or saliva on the strip and the paper’s capillary action wicks it along to react with the proteins, producing color changes that give health care workers quick, unambiguous and reliable information about their patients. A company Whitesides helped found, Diagnostics For All, uses one of these devices to test liver function in HIV patients taking concoctions of powerful liver-damaging antiretroviral drugs. The company hopes to start sending the tests to Africa within the next few years.

A drop of blood on this paper strip can reveal high levels of an enzyme that signals liver damage. © DIAGNOSTICS FOR ALL

“Low-cost diagnostics has the characteristic that it is both a problem that is really important in a very broad sense but also leads to all sorts of interesting new science,” says Whitesides.

Simplicity is the key to solving this kind of problem: When these small, adaptable devices go out into the world, Whitesides says, other people can use them as building blocks for systems he might never have imagined.

Whitesides also takes a fundamentally different approach to research than many of his colleagues. “One of the things which I’ve come to feel very strongly is that we should completely abolish the distinction between science and engineering,” he says. “It takes players who are on the same team and pits them against one another.” He describes the two as the same activity with different points of view. When looking at ways to lower cost or reduce complexity — problems he says are typically thought of as engineering issues — he often discovers a solution through fundamental science.

With that approach, Whitesides believes that solutions to some big problems may not be so hard to find.

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