Can Nanotechnology Save Lives?

Harvard professor and scientific genius George Whitesides believes that nanotechnology will change medicine as we know it

Polymer fronds a few thousand nanometers long wrap around even tinier plymer spheres. (Felice C. Frankel)
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He went on to do graduate work at the California Institute of Technology. In the acknowledgements section of his doctoral dissertation he thanked his adviser, John D. Roberts, for “his patient direction and indirection.” Most graduate students value a mentor’s direction, Whitesides says. “In my case, he didn’t direct me at all. I don’t think I saw him in the years I was there, but we had a nice relationship.”

Whitesides taught at MIT for nearly 20 years before arriving in 1982 at Harvard, where he is something of a rarity. He is a practicing capitalist, for starters. That focuses him on real-world applications, something not all of his colleagues admire, according to Mara Prentiss, a Harvard physics professor who teaches a nanotechnology course with him. “George is greatly admired by many people, but not everyone appreciates his style,” she says. Whitesides doesn’t seem to care. “I presume it’s out there,” he says of any animosity. But he has very little time for those who think that appearing on CNN or starting companies is gauche. He says they can “just take a knitting needle and put it here”—he points at his nose—“and shove it.”

Tom Tritton, president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a history and educational organization in Philadelphia, says if you ask anyone in the field to list the world’s top three chemists, Whitesides will make every list. “The sheer breadth of his intellect is astounding,” Tritton says. After receiving the foundation’s highest award, the Othmer Gold Medal, Whitesides spent the day with high-school students in the city. Tritton says one student later offered this observation: “He may be a scientist, but he’s really cool.”

At the heart of almost everything Whitesides does is a contradiction: he works in complex fields of physics, chemistry, biology and engineering, using complex tools—not many people have ever wielded an atomic force microscope—and yet he is obsessed with simplicity. Ask him for an example of simplicity, and he will say, “Google.” He doesn’t mean you should Google the word “simplicity.” He means the Google home page, the spare rectangle on the white field into which millions of people type words to find information on the Internet. Whitesides is mesmerized by this box.

“But how does that work?” he says. He pauses, drawing a breath. He leans forward in his chair. His eyes get big. His forehead goes up, and with it his very large glasses. This is George Whitesides getting excited.

“You start with binary, and binary is the simplest form of arithmetic,” he says of the system of ones and zeros used to program computers. Then he launches into an impromptu historical guided tour of switches, transistors and integrated circuits before returning, finally, to Google, “which takes an idea of such incredible complexity—to organize all of humanity’s information—and puts it in this little thing, in a box.”

The idea behind Google—boiling down vast stores of knowledge into an elegant little package—is also the idea behind the thing Whitesides is now holding in his hand, a so-called lab on a chip no bigger than a postage stamp, which is designed to diagnose a variety of ailments with nearly the precision of a modern clinical laboratory.

It’s intended for health workers in remote parts of developing nations. They will place a drop of a patient’s blood or urine on the stamp; if the ailment is one of the 16 or so that the stamp can recognize, it will change color according to the affliction. Then the health worker, or even the patient, can take a picture of the stamp with a cellphone. The picture can be sent to a doctor or a lab; someday a computer program might allow the cellphone itself to make a tentative diagnosis.

“To treat disease you have to first know what you’re treating—that’s diagnostics—and then you have to do something,” Whitesides says in a standard speech he gives about the technology. “So the program that we’re involved in is something which we call diagnostics for all, or zero-cost diagnostics. How do you provide medically relevant information at as close as possible to zero cost? How do you do it?”

You start with paper, he says. It’s inexpensive. It’s absorbent. It colors easily. To turn paper into a diagnostic tool, Whitesides runs it through a wax printer. The printer melts wax onto the paper to create channels with nanometer-size molecules at the ends. These molecules react with substances in bodily fluids. The fluid “distributes itself into these various wells, or holes, and turns colors,” Whitesides explains. Think pregnancy test. A stamp that turns blue in one corner, for instance, might reveal one diagnosis; a pattern of other colors would diagnose another. The cost to produce diagnostic stamps is 10 cents each, and Whitesides hopes to make them even more cheaply. Just about any advanced cellphone with a camera could be programmed to process an image of the stamp.


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