Photograph courtesy Hayat Sindi
Something the size of a postage stamp, costing just a penny a piece, could be a medical breakthrough that will save millions of lives. According to Hayat Sindi, when this tiny piece of paper enters an impoverished African village, the power of an entire diagnostic lab has arrived.
“My mission is to find simple, inexpensive ways to monitor health that are specifically designed for remote places and harsh conditions,” Sindi notes. She believes technology pioneered by a team at Harvard University will make it possible, and she co-founded the nonprofit Diagnostics For All to produce and distribute the innovation.
The low-tech diagnostic tool detects disease by analyzing bodily fluids. The device is produced by etching micro-channels and wells onto a small square of paper and pre-filling the wells with chemicals. To perform a test, a drop of saliva, urine, or blood is placed on the paper. The fluid travels through the channels and a chemical reaction occurs that causes the spot to change color. Results show up in less than a minute and can be easily read using a color scale provided with the device. (The team even chose colors that someone who is color blind can see.)
A survey of doctors in the field convinced Sindi to make the technology’s first application a liver function test. All across the developing world, powerful drugs are used to combat HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis. These same potent medicines can cause liver damage or failure if not closely monitored. In developed countries, doctors monitor liver function frequently, changing or stopping medication at the first sign of trouble. But in isolated, rural corners of the world, the idea of health monitoring simply doesn’t exist. The tragic result is that millions are dying from the very medications meant to save them—all because they can’t access health monitoring.
In many areas, medical care must take place without electricity, clean water, or skilled professionals. Even if someone manages to reach a clinic with doctors, it takes weeks to process lab results. By then, irreversible liver damage has occurred, and many patients who live far away can’t be located again. For Sindi, the solution is to bring the “lab” to them, and paper-based technology allows that to happen. “Paper is very inexpensive, universally available, lightweight, and easy to carry,” she explains. “Health care workers will be able to visit as many as 200 homes each day, perform tests, and take action immediately. Only minimal training is required and no external power, electricity, equipment, clean water, or sterile environment is needed. After use, devices can be burned with a match, preventing contamination. It’s a tool that allows even the poorest people in the most medically challenged places to get the tests they need.”
Sindi’s determination to tackle daunting problems should come as no surprise. Despite coming from humble means, never traveling outside Saudi Arabia or speaking a word of English, she moved to England in hopes of attending university there. Alone, homesick, and worried that she would fail and dishonor her family, she learned English by watching BBC news broadcasts and studied up to 20 hours a day for college entrance exams. Against improbable odds, she became the first Saudi woman accepted at Cambridge University in the male-dominated field of biotechnology. She went on to earn her Ph.D., teach in the international medical program, present work to the House of Commons, and become a visiting scholar at Harvard University.
“When people tell me things are impossible, it just gives me energy,” she says. Each year the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sponsors the $100K Entrepreneurship Competition. When Sindi decided to enter her business plan for the paper-based diagnostic innovation, she was told it could never win as a nonprofit entity. Advisors urged her to attract investors with a for-profit plan and wait to help the developing world until after garnering big earnings. “I thought, how long will that take, 10 or 15 years? Meanwhile, how many lives will be lost?” She refused to waver from her goal of reaching needy people as fast as possible, and hers became the first nonprofit enterprise ever to win the prestigious international contest. The team also won the Harvard Enterprise Competition—the first group ever to win both prizes in the same year.
Sindi’s irrepressible passion and accomplishments have made her a role model for women and girls across the Middle East and the world. “I want all women to believe in themselves and know they can transform society.” She lectures and appears on talk shows and even bicycled across the Middle East with hundreds of professional women to highlight the plight of women and children. “At schools, the first thing I ask children to do is to draw a picture of a scientist [and] 99.9 percent of them draw an old bald man with glasses. When I tell them I’m a scientist they look so surprised.” A new foundation she’s launched gives guidance and seed money to inspire youth who attend university abroad to bring their talent back to their homelands and “flourish to their maximum potential.”
“My message is: Find a mission in life and contribute something to humanity. For me, science is a universal language that transcends nationality, religion, and gender. It can help solve any problem our world faces.” To prove it, she’s using a little piece of paper and one very big idea.
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Hayat Sindi is a Saudi medical researcher who was born in Makka. She has invented a machine combining the effects of light and ultra-sound for use in biotechnology. Her major project is being carried out in partnership with the universities of Exeter and Cambridge.
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In Their Words
“Science can be such a powerful way to help humanity. I’m using it to bring easy, affordable health diagnoses to the world’s poorest people.”
Our mission is to create an ecosystem of innovation for scientists in the Middle East and beyond.
Listen to Hayat Sindi
Hear various interviews with Sindi on National Geographic Weekend.
00:11:00 Hayat Sindi
National Geographic Emerging Explorer Hayat Sindi is using science to bring the world’s poorest people affordable health checks. Sindi tells Boyd how she is developing cheap diagnostic medical tests the size of postage stamps that could revolutionize the way medicine is practiced across the developing world.
00:09:00 Hayat Sindi
National Geographic Emerging Explorer Hayat Sindi is working on medical breakthroughs that will potentially save millions of lives. But recently, while not working, she joined a group of nearly 300 women to bicycle 400 miles across the Middle East. But, as she tells Boyd, only after she learned to ride a bike.
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