As a Health Sciences major, I’ve always found the applications of technology in medicine fascinating. Medicine in particular always seems to get “the good stuff.” High power medical centrifuges that can crack 15,000 RPM. Extensive MRI setups that require specialized power banks, massive facilities, and dedicated staff. Unparalleled access to state of the art X-ray and nuclear technology.
Medicine seems to always be on the cutting edge of technology, because we as a society value life above all other things. Medicine is what keeps our lives going, so it seems fair that we allocate the most resources and technology there.
But what happens when a society can’t provide comprehensive medical support? How does medicine function when there is little access to basic infrastructure? In the third world, access to electricity, pure water, and clean facilities are lacking. You won’t find any 15,000 RPM centrifuges or extensive medicinal imaging facilities there.
In a new initiative by Standford University, a group of biochemists seek to downsize medical equipment. The mantra of the ‘Foldscope’ project is to transform expensive medical technology into rugged, cheap, and cost effective replacements. The Foldscope, a 50 cent microscope made of cardboard and a plastic bead is the first of many innovations. Another invention is the “hand powered centrifuge.” Coming in at a very affordable 20 cents, the centrifuge is a surprisingly effective despite being made of paper and string.
By producing makeshift medical equipment out of common materials, the Foldscope project aims to bring medicine into the third world in a realistic way. $1 equipment produced by the startup will obviously never compare to real medical equipment. But in the meantime, it gets people invested in science.
Foldscope aims to use its $1 microscope + centrifuge combo to tackle malaria in poor parts of Africa and India. Blood samples from malaria patients can be loaded into the hand powered centrifuges. After a few minuets of hand powered operation, the blood samples are ready for examination in the 50 cent microscope. With some training, the people of the third world should be able to use the Foldscope kit to diagnose malaria. (But not treat it.)
While treating, (and eventually eradicating) malaria is the goal of medicine, getting common people to understand medicinal science is a crucial step in the process. In many parts of India and Africa, vaccination efforts are hindered by tradition, superstition, and distrust for medical professionals. If people in the third world are able to see pathogens under their very own 5o cent microscopes, a lot of attitudes could be changed. As the old saying goes, “seeing is believing.”