This Piece Of Paper On A String Could Revolutionize Health Care In Third-World Countries

This Piece Of Paper On A String Could Revolutionize Health Care In Third-World Countries
Health

The Paperfuge is an inexpensive version of the sampling mechanism used to detect infections such as malaria and HIV

Ido Lechner, Home Editor
  • 23 january 2017

Named after the centrifuge—a piece of lab equipment from where it draws inspiration—the Paperfuge is a cheap version of the sampling mechanism used to detect infections like malaria and HIV. Made from bits of paper and string, the crafty little device can spin biological samples at a rate of 125,000 rpm, enough to separate plasma from a blood sample in 90 seconds. That’s about eight times faster than a StatSpin MP centrifuge—the commercial standard for diagnostic and research labs around the world—which requires roughly two minutes to perform the plasma separation technique, not to mention electricity, complicated machinery, expensive replacement components and several thousand dollars to purchase. In this context, the Paperfuge is a win for science, alongside the billion people living on Earth without electricity nor infrastructure, but the same health care requirements as you and I.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Manu Prakash, inventor of the Paperfuge, was able to democratize a piece of technology using nothing more than a piece of paper and his innovative spirit. In 2012, Prakash unveiled the Foldscope, an origami-like microscope which can be reproduced for less than a dollar yet is powerful enough to see microogranisms. Since then, the Indian-born scientist and Professor of Bioengineering at Stanford has been on a mission to yet another tool in dire need for reinvention.

Both the Foldscope and the Paperfuge embody Prakash’s philosophy of ‘frugal science,’ which asserts that access to inexpensive yet powerful technologies can revolutionize medicine around the globe. And though the technology itself is quite simple, the road to realization is often anything but. In searching for a cheaper yet equally as effective mechanism for what would ultimately become the Paperfuge, Prakash sought inspiration from children’s toys, as many incorporated some sort of rotary technology that was an obvious first step for catalyzing the invention.

His team of researchers began by experimenting with tops, which quickly fell through since they didn’t spin fast enough nor long enough to separate biological samples. Yo-yo’s proved more successful, but there was the problem of a steep learning curve, which proved especially challenging in the non-western world. Not only would you have to throw the toy perfectly every time, but in an ideal situation you’d want it to spin without abruption. Even after a whole year of practice, Prakash was unable to beat the lab record of 4,000 rpm.

The breakthrough came shortly after 2016 rolled in, when post-doc Saad Bhamla decided to test out a toy from his childhood in India called a whirligig. The whimsical toy, whose design dates back thousands of years, is fashioned out of a button or disc suspended on a string. When pulling the looped ends, the circular center then revolves one way due to the applied force (which winds the string) before stopping and proceeding to spin in the reverse direction as the string begins to unwind. By rhythmically flexing and releasing, one can continue this motion for hours on end.

To prove the efficacy of the proposed model, Bhamla sat down one night with a sewing kit, and strung a needle through a button in what would become the Paperfuge’s first-ever prototype. By holding the toy in front of a rapid shutter camera, he started spinning the tool to find that the button was gyrating far too fast for the eye to process exactly how many times it came to a full rotation. Upon slowing down the footage, he had realized that this was it: as it turned out, you can achieve the same results from this simple toy as you can a centrifuge. A mere button on a thin piece of thread produced between 10,000 to 15,000 rpms.

After taking it to Prakash, the team then spent the next few months dissecting the many intricacies hidden beneath the surface—it turned out that no one had ever actually produced a mathematical formula for the way the whirligig moves, so in constructing a theoretical model they were starting from scratch. In doing so, they had discovered an interesting phenomenon: when the string curls beyond a certain threshold, it begins to form new curls on top of the older ones, a term otherwise known as ‘supercoiling.’ Supercoiled strings store more energy than regularly coiled ones, which in turn accelerate the disc to faster RPMs. This discovery helped form the foundation for many of the team’s prototypes to come.

From differing lengths, to the radius of the disc, to the types of materials in play, each prototype produced vastly different results. In search of the optimal conditions, the team had simulated a wide range of whirligigs, finally settling on the same material Prakash had used on his Foldscopes. The synthetic paper, used by many countries as currency, is therefore readily accessible to the grand majority of people around the world, on top of being incredibly strong. Moreover, because it has polymer fibers on both front and back, it just so happens to be waterproof.

Prakash and Bhalma are currently traveling the world, coordinating with local healthcare workers on testing the Paperfuge out in the field. After returning from Madagascar having raised quite a few brows, they’re certain they can help the technology disperse throughout countries that don’t have the means to purchase fancier, more traditional equipment. In the past, transporting centrifuges meant hauling a generator in a jeep just to power the device in remote villages. Now, anyone can carry the two-gram device to be used immediately upon arrival. Prakash has since received a MacArthur fellowship for his groundbreaking and philanthropic work.

Manu Prakash

Named after the centrifuge—a piece of lab equipment from where it draws inspiration—the Paperfuge is a cheap version of the sampling mechanism used to detect infections like malaria and HIV. Made from bits of paper and string, the crafty little device can spin biological samples at a rate of 125,000 rpm, enough to separate plasma from a blood sample in 90 seconds. That’s about eight times faster than a StatSpin MP centrifuge—the commercial standard for diagnostic and research labs around the world—which requires roughly two minutes to perform the plasma separation technique, not to mention electricity, complicated machinery, expensive replacement components and several thousand dollars to purchase. In this context, the Paperfuge is a win for science, alongside the billion people living on Earth without electricity nor infrastructure, but the same health care requirements as you and I.

+Arts & Culture
+bioengineering
+Health
+health care
+Stanford
+technology
+third world

Learn About Our Membership Services

Need Research Help?
As a member you can ask us any research questions and get complimentary research assistance with a 4-day turnaround. Reports inclde stats, quotes, and best-inclass examples on research topics.
Remain Informed & Strategic
We publish several trends reports each month. By becoming a member you will have access to over 100 existing reports, plus a growing catalog of deep topical analysis and debrief-style reports so you always remain in the know.
See Trends Come To Life
Meet your peers and immerse yourself in monthly trend and innovation webinars and discounted conferences.
No search results found.