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Origami Microscope May Revolutionize Healthcare, Education in Developing World

Innovation

Print-and-fold device costs less than a dollar to make and could be used to detect deadly diseases like malaria and tuberculosis

Vashti Hallissey
  • 23 july 2014

Diseases like African sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis and Chagas plague millions of people around the world. With a microscope, these can be detected and treated, but many health workers in the Developing World don’t have access to this vital piece of equipment. If available at all, their optical tools are expensive, bulky and fragile, completely unsuited to low-resource and remote environments.

Manu Prakash, a biophysicist, aims to bring microscopes to the masses to combat life-threatening diseases and make science education available to all. He has developed a paper microscope that can be mass-produced, easily assembled and which costs less than a dollar in parts.

“I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free. What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy,” Prakesh tells Stanford Medicine’s Scope Blog.

foldscope_disease_detection.jpg

The Foldscope is produced by Prakash Lab, a research group in the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University where Prakash is a professor.

The device can be assembled in around five minutes from a single sheet of paper, a micro-lens, a 3V battery, an LED and a couple of other parts such as tape and a switch. You print out the pattern, fold along the lines and slot different parts together to create a bookmark-sized microscope that can be modified to detect different types of diseases. The simplest version features a 17 cent lens and more complex versions include multiple lenses and filters.

foldscope_assembled.jpg

Standard medical microscopes are so fragile that they would be unlikely to survive the journey to many locations in the Developing World. Furthermore, they often require a power source which makes them useless in areas without electricity.

In contrast, the Foldscope is incredibly durable, you can step on it or drop it from a three-storey building and it will remain intact. It is also lightweight, waterproof and it doesn’t need an external power source. It is cheap enough to be thrown away if necessary, to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

Given that the Foldscope costs practically nothing to make, its power is astonishing. It can achieve magnification of 2,000 times, which is the same as a desktop instrument costing $1,000. The Prakesh Lab is now working on a refined version that improves the resolution from 700 nanometers, so that it will be able to detect disease like malaria and tuberculosis.

As well as tackling the world’s deadliest diseases, the Foldscope is an educational resource. The Foldscope Team want to give kids the tools to discover the microscopic world and to inspire the next generation of scientists.

foldscope_eDay_education_microscopy.jpg

The Foldscope website states:

We believe this crowd-sourced resource will revolutionize how biology and microscopy is taught to kids around the world. We are trying to go away from ‘facts’ and focus on ‘learning to ask questions.’

The Prakash Lab received $100,000 from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for initial development. It is now utilizing its four-year $700,000 grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to distribute 10,000 Foldscopes to beta-testers around the world. Participants were chosen based on the scientific questions they wanted to study and this summer they are all working to produce “the world’s most awesome biology manual.”

The Foldscope is not yet commercially available but when it is, it has the potential to save millions of lives and to democratize science education. In short, it could change the world.

Foldscope

Images: Foldscope Team

[h/t] Businessweek, Scope Blog

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