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BLOG biotech : Jul 9, 2010

The Nonprofit 'Diagnostics For All' Provides a Lesson For Us All

  • Taralyn Tan
Dr. George Whitesides and his team at Harvard University had the creativity required for any endeavor that attempts to effect change in society.  And they had the scientific know-how and ingenuity to actually pull it off: patterned paper. (That's right - paper.) This paper contains channels that are filled with chemical assay reagents. It is a cheap, reliable diagnostic tool that is easily transported and doesn't require any fancy machines for data analysis. A pinprick and a dot of blood on the postage stamp-sized paper results in a rapid color-producing reaction that signals the diagnosis—easy to detect and simple to interpret. From this description you can surely appreciate the intelligence of the design and the sheer genius of those who engineered it. Yet, perhaps the greatest demonstration of intelligence is not in the technology itself, but rather what Dr. Whitesides decided to do with it.

He led the effort to start the nonprofit enterprise Diagnostics For All (DFA) in 2007, which late last year announced Dr. Una Ryan (former CEO of Waltham Technologies) as its CEO. Could Dr. Whitesides' technology have been of use to traditional for-profit biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies? Certainly. Could it have generated substantial profits within that arena? Most definitely. Yet, Dr. Whitesides was smart enough—or perhaps simply benevolent enough—to realize the potential for his technology beyond generating revenue for stockholders. He and everyone associated with Diagnostics For All should be applauded for their efforts, as they work to marry scientific ingenuity not with blockbuster drugs or expensive treatments but, rather, with practical solutions to some of the many health issues facing rural populations in developing countries around the world.

DFA is not the first example of such an altruistic enterprise, but it certainly serves as an model of what can be achieved when biomedical research is actually focused on innovation and practicality to a world in need. It is an example of scientists and entrepreneurs taking the noble, less-traveled road of nonprofit biotech, although it is my sincere desire that our society can begin wandering down that path more often. 

As a developed nation with thriving industries in biomedical research and biotechnology, don't we have some sort of commitment to those less fortunate than ourselves? Shouldn't we be reaching out—looking past the dollar signs? The industries of pharmaceuticals and medical products/equipment were ranked numbers three and four, respectively, on Fortune 500's 2009 list of most profitable industries, yet the amount of accessible medical resources in developing nations lags far behind what one would expect, given the successes and marketable technologies of this country. 

The solution is not to sporadically throw money or donate batches of vaccines to countries in need, as many pharmaceutical/biotechnology companies do. Instead, there needs to be more avenues for scientists to turn their innovations into life-saving tools in the areas of the world that are most in need. This will not be achieved through the standard channels provided by the "big pharma" for-profit giants but through humble endeavors like DFA. As a biomedical moral compass of sorts, DFA shows what is possible when scientists choose to invest their energies in nonprofit. It would serve us all well to think about how our energy will be spent to bring the innovations of this country and its scientists to the rest of the world.