For a whole lot of people, especially those in developing countries, science — and with it, medicine — isn’t readily available to the majority of citizens. But Manu Prakash wants to change that.
Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, is the proprietor of “frugal science,” a term he coined to explain the movement toward building cheap versions of high tech tools. His endeavour aims to make medical devices both affordable and available to the masses.
The way Prakash sees it, labs don’t need the most expensive equipment out there in order to reach profound breakthroughs. “Today people look at these extraordinary labs and forget that in the 1800s they could still do the exact same science,” he told The New York Times.
So in 2014 he created a paper microscope, aptly named the Foldscope, that costs only 50 cents to produce.
Though microscopes might seem like a mundane piece of equipment, they remain an integral part of detecting disease and analysing blood samples. Yet despite their necessity, they’re expensive. A quality microscope can cost hundreds of dollars, plus even more to keep it maintained.
For labs in developing countries, these costs often lie outside their meager budgets. Even for labs that can afford the luxury of a high-powered microscope, properly trained technicians come at a steep price as well.
Prakash’s Foldscope is made almost entirely of paper. It’s colour-coded and perforated to guide users in construction, but features no written instructions, making it universally understandable. All of the microscope’s non-paper parts, such as its lens and battery, are built in to the sheet, keeping assembly as simple as possible.
The higher resolution version of the microscope magnifies up to 2,100 times and costs around $US1, while the lower resolution costs around 50 cents. The entire microscope is small enough to fit in a pocket, nearly weightless, and incredibly sturdy — it can be dropped, stomped on, or doused in water and will still work.
Practically, the Foldscope can help doctors correctly diagnose deadly diseases such as malaria, schistosomiasis, and African sleeping sickness. In a TED Talk, Prakash explains that identifying these infections is as simple as adding dye to a single drop of blood. With cheap, easy-to-use microscopes, any lab technician can learn to detect malaria, potentially revolutionising healthcare in areas where these diseases run rampant.
While the generic Foldscope serves as a one-size-fits-all microscope, Prakash and his team have also developed specialised versions, such as a malaria-centric one, that make identifying diseases even easier.
Prakash’s vision of “frugal science” didn’t stop at the microscope, however. He built a $US5 microfluidic chemistry lab that is able to test and analyse substances, like soil or snake venom, using a hand crank in place of electricity.
Recently, Prakash also developed a computer than runs on water droplets. The droplets are suspended in a magnetic field and move certain distances as the field rotates, effectively serving as a computer clock, an essential piece of any working computer.
More than just helping combat disease, Prakash also hopes his “frugal science” movement will make science education and research accessible across the globe.
Prakash keeps an unusual map in his room to remind him of his mission. On it, Africa is almost nonexistent, India is tiny, and China’s only a little larger. The map bases the size of each country on the amount of scientific research it produces, The New York Times reported. It serves as a daily reminder to Prakash of the inequality many countries face when it comes to resources and technology.
And with that kind of motivation and ingenuity, there’s no telling how far Prakash and frugal science can reach.
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