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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“Whitesides is doing this brilliant work literally using paper,” Bill Gates said two years ago. “And, you know, it’s so cheap and it’s so simple, it could actually get out and help patients in this deep way.” Cheap and simple: Whitesides’ plan exactly. He formed a nonprofit group, Diagnostics for All, to bring the technology to developing countries. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is investing in the technology to measure liver function, a test needed to ensure powerful AIDS and tuberculosis drugs don’t damage one of the body’s most important organs. Right now, testing liver function in isolated parts of the world is generally too expensive or too logistically difficult, or both. Whitesides’ stamp is also being developed to pinpoint the cause of fevers of unknown origin and identify infections. A prototype of the liver function stamp is being tested in the lab, and the early results, Whitesides says, are more than promising. The chip will begin to undergo field testing later this year.

Strolling across a stage in Boston—a rare home speaking event—Whitesides, in his fisherman’s cap, lays out his vision for how the invention will be used, sometimes in lawless places: “My view of the health care worker of the future is not a doctor, but an 18-year-old, otherwise unemployed, who has two things. He has a backpack full of these tests, and a lancet to occasionally take a blood sample, and an AK-47. And these are the things that get him through his day.”

It is a simple solution for a complicated situation, in a place far from Harvard, but working on the lab stamp is exactly where Whitesides wants to be. “What I want to do is solve problems,” he says, back at his lab, holding his lab on a chip. “And if nano is the right way of solving the problem, I’ll use that. If something else is the right way, I’ll use that. I’m not a zealot for nanotechnology. I’m not actually a zealot for anything.” Except, that is, for bringing meaning to things nobody can even see. His work could push the incredibly small architecture of nanotechnology into the architecture of everyday life.

Michael Rosenwald wrote about the search for new influenza viruses for the January 2006 issue of Smithsonian.


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