Diseases, beware: A chemist may have found a way to detect you sooner.

Imagine being hit with a dangerously high fever hundreds of miles away from the nearest hospital.

You live in a rural area, have little money for treatment or transportation, and don't have an easy way to physically get to the hospital.

When you're eventually able to see a doctor and take some tests, that's when he tells you some disconcerting news — you have malaria, your condition has already worsened, and now your treatment options are limited.


If only there had been a way to find out sooner, when more could be done.

The streets of Timbuktu in Mali. Image via iStock.

That's the harsh reality many people face in sub-Saharan Africa when it comes to malaria.

According to UNICEF, more than a million people die from malaria each year, and 90% of those cases of malaria occur in sub-Saharan Africa. What's even more heartbreaking is that the majority of those deaths are children under the age of 5.

Malaria also hurts the continent economically — Africa loses up to $12 billion every year due to a loss in productivity.

A close-up of the culprit. Image via CDC Global/Flickr.

Luckily, chemists at Ohio State University are developing a way to test for malaria without having to visit a doctor.

And all the patient needs is a piece of paper!

This would help people get malaria diagnoses sooner — if the test is positive, they know it's critical to go to the doctor, and when they do go, it would already be for treatment and not just for testing.

Currently, patients can take a Rapid Diagnostic Test (RDT) to find out if they have malaria or not, but the climate in Africa combined with the considerable expense of the test often prevent it from being an option. However, these are issues a new home test can address.

Image by Pam Frost Gorder, used with permission.

The man leading this charge is Abraham Badu-Tawiah, an assistant professor of chemistry and biology at Ohio State.

Having grown up in Ghana, he knew he wanted to come up with a way to provide an accurate diagnosis for people far away from a proper medical facility.

"Our main motivation is really to get to know whether you’re sick or not sick early enough so that we don’t wait or think it’s too late," said Badu-Tawiah. "If it’s just in the initial stages, you can actually take your time and do something to focus on getting well."

So how does this piece of paper work?

As a patient, all you would need to do is put a drop of blood in the reservoir, fold the paper in half, stick it in an envelope and then mail it to their lab. After a round of testing, you get your results. That's it!

Image by Pam Frost Gorder, used with permission.

The paper itself uses a special wax ink that creates a barrier to keep the blood sample in place. It's also charged with ionic probes that can tag the specific antibodies that act as biomarkers (basically, indicators) of a particular disease. Even better, the ionic probes aren't affected by light, temperature, or humidity and can keep the sample intact for up to 30 days — ideal for patients in sub-Saharan Africa.

Once the lab has the paper, they just dip it in an ammonia solution, peel the layers apart and put it in front of a mass spectrometer — the device that can find the disease biomarker and tell whether someone is sick or not.

Right now, the testing needs to be done in special labs because mass spectrometers aren't immediately available in developing nations and they're very expensive. However, smaller, less expensive ones are already in the process of being developed. So help is on the way!

It's also possible to use this device to test for certain cancers. In time, hopefully all of them.

In the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Badu-Tawiah and his colleagues state that they can test for any disease where the human body produces antibodies. This includes ovarian cancer and cancer of the large intestine.

But they're not stopping there.

"It will cover all kinds of cancer eventually when we advance in knowledge," added Badu-Tawiah. "What we need is to be able to identify a specific biomarker for each cancer."

The paper is designed to be very affordable at just 50 cents a piece.

Image by Pam Frost Gorder, used with permission.

And that number could go even lower once they enter mass production. Access for all, regardless of location, is incredibly important to Badu-Tawiah.

"Making the resources accessible to a lot of people I think is the solution. That’s why I came up with this idea to build a bridge and to connect the rural and the cities," he said. "This will be useful for a lot of people, not only in Africa, but in the U.S. and many other places. It will change lives."

The scientists are also working very hard to make the testing process less invasive and more comprehensive.

Image by Pam Frost Gorder, used with permission.

"Our next move is actually going down from blood to saliva and then to urine," says Badu-Tawiah. "We are really hopeful that within a few years, this will come to fruition."

They're also developing a separate method that is able to detect malaria, syphilis, HIV, and tuberculosis all on the same device.

Pretty amazing, right?

This type of research has the potential to change how the world approaches deadly diseases.

Just thinking about how a drop of blood on a piece of paper could potentially replace a long journey to a testing facility is an exciting development.

In places from Africa to the U.S., this kind of innovation could one day be available at the corner drug store. It has a long way to go, but the prospects so far are exciting.

In this instance, it really is the smallest things — like a 50-cent piece of paper — that can make the biggest difference.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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In a North Carolina neighborhood that looks like a present-day Pleasantville, a man carries a cup of coffee and a plate of brownies out to his car. "Good mornin!" he calls cheerfully to a neighbor jogging by. As he sets his coffee cup on the hood of the car, he says, "I need to wash my car." Well, shucks. His wife enters the camera frame on the other side of the car.

So far, it's just about the most classic modern Americana scene imaginable. And then...

A horrifying "rrrrawwwww!" Blood-curdling screaming. Running. Panic. The man abandons the brownies, races to his wife's side of the car, then emerges with an animal in his hands. He holds the creature up like Rafiki holding up Simba, then yells in its face, "Oh my god! It's a bobcat! Oh my god!"

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
True

Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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