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Chemist tackles complex problems with simplicity

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

By
10:00am, November 2, 2014
Harvard’s George Whitesides

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

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

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