Team Plans New Diagnostic Tests

While a scrap of paper is typically used to jot down a phone number or spit out a piece of chewing gum, it may soon be used to diagnose illnesses like HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis.

A six-membered team from Harvard and MIT recently won both Harvard Business School’s and MIT’s business plan competitions for their non-profit enterprise Diagnostics-For-All, which aims to improve global health care by using the paper technology as affordable yet accurate diagnostic devices.

“The overall goal is to produce a device that essentially doesn’t cost anything to make,” said Andres W. Martinez, a graduate student at Harvard and one of the developers of the paper technology. “It could be used to test a range of different diseases, and we plan to focus on diseases that effect people in developing countries.”

Paper was an ideal medium because it is cheap, lightweight, and widely available, Martinez said. He and his colleagues in the Whitesides lab have patterned the paper into a “microfluidic device” with channels that allow the fluid to be separated into different compartments where independent assays can take place.

Eventually, the fluid will be a drop of a patient’s blood, sweat, or urine, which will then be separated into compartments on the paper that will change color to indicate the presence of certain enzymes or proteins that in turn could indicate certain diseases.

“Our prototype right now is devised to test for glucose and protein in urine, which are indicators of kidney failure in diabetes,” Martinez said. “We’re hoping to move into much more specific assays.”

Roozbeh Ghaffari, one of the members of the winning team and an adviser of Diagnostics-For-All, said that the technology is still in the early stages in terms of commercialization.

“The plan is in the next few years to have this as a platform for use in developing countries and urban settings where health care and medical devices may be at a premium,” Ghaffari said.

Diagnostics-For-All hired its CEO in June and is currently applying for funding, according to Hayat Sindi, another member of the team and co-founder of DFA.

Ghaffari, Sindi, and the rest of their team were one of two first-place winners out of 73 teams in the annual Harvard Business School competition. They competed in the social enterprise track as opposed to the traditional track and received $10,000.

At the MIT 100K Entrepreneurship Competition, the team managed to beat more than 230 other teams, including both for-profit and non-profit, to win the grand prize and a check for $100,000.

Their business plan grew out of the HBS class “Inventing Breakthroughs and Commercializing Science”, taught by Vicki L. Sato, professor of businesses and the practice of molecular and cellular biology, who also served as the team’s mentor.

In June, the team traveled to New York City, where they rang the operating bell for the New York Stock Exchange.

—Staff writer Alissa M. D’Gama can be reached at

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