Manu Prakash: High-Tech for Low-Cost Medicine
Manu Prakash, a Stanford bioengineering professor and recipient of a MacArthur "genius grant" in 2016, was visiting a medical clinic in Uganda several years ago when he saw something alarming: Staffers were using an expensive centrifuge – vital in the detection of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis – as a doorstop. They had no electricity to power it, he said. Prakash, 37, has grown accustomed to scenes like this while traveling through resource-starved parts of the world. To help, he's devoted himself to what he calls "frugal science: the idea that if you make science accessible and scalable, it will have impacts on global health and education beyond our imagination."
Prakash's experience in Uganda led him and his team of researchers to develop a cheap centrifuge that anyone could use, despite limited funds and minimal training. First, they scrutinized a variety of simple spinning toys, eventually settling on the centuries-old whirligig as their model. The result is the Paperfuge: paper discs fitted with tubes that can hold blood samples, connected to twine strings that allow a user to spin the discs at up to 125,000 rpm, thereby separating out, say, malaria parasites. To study those parasites, a user might deploy another ingenious invention of Prakash's, the Foldscope – an origami-inspired paper microscope capable of high-powered imaging, the component materials of which cost just $1.
At least 50,000 Foldscopes have been distributed in 135 countries. Someone used one to study air pollutants in China; others have tested for counterfeit drugs and diagnosed animal and plant diseases. Tools like these, Prakash says, represent "a means of creativity. Sometimes we forget how wonderful this world is. If we can bring that to people, we can change their attitudes toward problems. If we make people curious, I'd call it a success." JW