Christian Long

George Whitesides: A Lab the Size of a Postage Stamp

In TED Talks on April 14, 2010 at 8:12 am

Reflection by TREVOR A.

Original TED page w/ speaker bio, links, comments, etc:

George Whitesides:  A Lab the Size of a Postage Stamp

George Whitesides begins this video by getting straight to his point, which is based on the problem of the supplying of healthcare to people in “a world in which cost is everything”.

He states that in order to treat disease you must first know what you’re treating, which is diagnostics. What he is trying to do is figure out how to provide medically relevant information at as close to zero cost, and he seems to have found a solution that will be perfect for the developing world, but will also be capable of being applied to many other fields as well. He decided that he would use paper, one of the most low-cost materials that we have to our disposal here on Earth. He then exhibits a prototype of his solution, which is a piece of paper with polymer edges, just about a centimeter long on each side. He explains that the device works by dipping the bottom end of it in a sample of whatever substance you may be testing, and it is then wicked into the different-shaped chambers on the paper. He uses a sample of urine on his prototype and explains how the glucose from the urine is wicked into the circular chamber on the device and has a brown color to it, and how the protein has been wicked into the square-shaped chamber and has a blue color.

It seems very unusual to me that we are able, even in this day and age, to further the use of paper in the medical field, and not just being used as information forms.

Whitesides is also very enthusiastic to point out one of his favorite parts about this new tes. He says with confidence, that in addition to the efficiency of the production of these tests, these “postage stamp-sized” devices get rid of the need for what he calls “sharps”, which are needles and “things that stick”. Also the use of paper for tests eliminates the risk of using a dirty needle, where now, with the use of these tests, you can dispose of them by simply burning them. He shares that the idea for these paper tests was derived from things like pregnancy tests, dip sticks, and other tests that had been made of paper. The production of these small, centimeter-long devices is simple. It starts with the paper, which is then run through a wax-printer that prints wax onto the paper, which is absorbed into the device, and you end up with the product you want. He states that if one 800 dollar wax printer was run making tests 24/7, they would produce at or around 10 million tests per year each, and with the cost per page of tests at a mere 5 cents, the cost problem is solved.

Imagine what it would be like to have ten of these printers producing these paper-tests 24/7, year round…

The wax printers are color printers, which is deemed useful because after you have used the test paper, all you have to do to submit your results is to take a picture of the device with your camera-phone and send it to either your doctor, or to a computer. He then brings up another prototype device, which is three dimensional and uses several layer of paper, each with their own fluid system, that are separated by double-sided carpet tape. Simplicity, Whitesides adds in, is when it’s “impossible to [mess] it up”, I’d agree with that, but although I can’t prove it, I believe that there would be many flaws in tests that are made of simple paper and carpet tape, and that it would indeed be very simple to mess it up, I mean look how the United States healthcare problem ended up.

I do, however, think that if we can get proof that these small, paper-tests can consistently and accurately give us results, that they could be very beneficial to the American economy.

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