Hayat Sindi and Diagnostics for All

Hayat Sindi is a Saudi medical researcher who has invented a machine “combining the effects of light and ultra-sound for use in biotechnology.” (So saith Wikipedia.) A few years ago she was part of a group of Arab women who peddled for peace — participating in a bicycle ride from Beirut to Ramallah intended to “send a message to world leaders to get on with it and stop the suffering that continuous conflict brings.”

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CC image by Kris Krug.

She’s the first Arab woman to win a Pop!Tech fellowship, and she’s part of this morning’s Mindshifts session, speaking as a Pop!Tech social innovation fellow. (Here’s a list of the 2009 fellows — not surprisingly, it’s a pretty august crowd.)

“Hayat is an extraordinary scientist… an incredibly passionate advocate for the role of women and girls in the sciences, in particular in an important region of the world,” says Andrew Zolli, welcoming her to the stage.

“This is my first time addressing such a diverse American community; I’m honored to be here,” she says. She’s the co-inventor and co-founder of Diagnostics For All, but wants to share a bit of her journey & passion before telling us about it.

“My journey has involved breaking boundaries between the East and the West, to help society and save everyone: child, man, or woman of different religions and cultures.” She was born in Mecca and comes from a family of 8 children with a traditional upbringing and enormous love for knowledge. Since childhood she has admired people who do something for humanity. “I dreamt one day to be like them, to make a difference in this world.”

Seventeen years ago she left home in her teens, on her own — not speaking a word of English — to Britain, to follow the dream of becoming a scientist. She graduated with honors from Kings College and received a scholarship to get a PhD in biotechnology from Cambridge. Almost three years ago, she came to Harvard, to work in a special scientific lab. “This lab is making great discoveries to help society and community at large.”

That lab is where Diagnostics For All arose, a project which involves creating point-of-care diagnostic devices microfabricated in paper. (This pretty much blows my mind.)

“Our mission is to provide a very low cost health care solutions to improve health worldwide.” They’re a nonprofit enterprise. “Millions of people are dying around the world because they can’t afford access to diagnostic tools.” Sindi shows a picture of a lab in the developing world — bulky equipment and unsanitary conditions. DFA has a solution, putting the power of the whole diagnostic lab at the patient’s fingertip.

“Our technology is made of paper, so it’s very low-cost,” she explains. It’s portable — can be carried, folded, put in a pocket. It doesn’t require external power or reagents, and it’s safely disposable — can be incinerated with a match. It’s also very tiny, which requires only a minimum amount of tears, saliva, or urine to give results in seconds. “We can do all of this on a piece of paper while maintaining the high level of quality.”

How does it work? Take a drop of bodily fluid and place it on the device. The fluid wicks up the channel and reacts with chemical reagents in wells which are built into the paper. The color change might tell you, e.g., about the presence of glucose or protein. There are many variations; it can test for many different things. “Our first application is liver function tests — there are a huge number of patients with HIV who suffer from liver damage because they take many pills which can cause liver failure. How we deal with this problem in the US? Monitoring blood taken from the patient so the doctor can keep an eye on the liver function. What’s happening in the developing world? It doesn’t happen.” Even if the patient has a sample sent to the lab, it takes weeks to get results, and the patient may have returned to a remote area — and by then it may be too late.

In the US, 5% of patients medicated for HIV develop liver failure. In the developing world, the figure is 15%. This is only HIV/AIDS and its medication; if we add TB, the number will jump to 2.3 million patients in the developing world who will die — not because of the disease but because of side effects from the drugs meant to save them. “Diagnostics for All can solve this problem head-on, simply by monitoring.” Take a drop of blood, squeeze it gently on the device, and you’ll have results in seconds. A doctor can screen a whole village.

They’re developing a suite of diagnostic tools for other problems as well. Because the tech is so sophisticated, it’s going to expand the market area. They’ve also introduced tele-medicine, as a complement to the device. A remote doctor can take a photo of the device and send it via SMS to a lab in Africa or the US who can give him results.

The team behind the project is a mixtures of MDs, PHDs, and MBAs. “Diagnostics for all is guaranteed to benefit all of us; and it’s going to take all of us to make it work. We need your support,” she tells us.

She closes by telling us what she’s learned from her journey so far. “My first message is to the women, especially women in the Middle East. I want to say to them that you are strong, you are smart, you are intelligent, and you can also make break-throughs. Society and science can be hand in hand. I had a dream as a child to make a difference, and it has all happened.”

Leadership in innovation should be taken by people who love diversity, people who can bring other people different skills, people who care, and people who are brave to break boundaries and create values for the next century. “The power is us doing it together.”

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