Ultralow-cost paper microscope shows promise for disease detection

-April 15, 2014

Manu Prakash, PhD, and his team of researchers have developed the origami-based Foldscope, a completely functional microscope that weighs less than two nickels and can be assembled in minutes by folding a single sheet of flat paper. All of the Foldscope’s components are located on the paper and color coded to tell the user how to fold. (No printed directions are included.) An external power source is not required, and the materials cost for the unit is only about 50 cents. With minor design modifications, it can be used for bright-field, multifluorescence, or projection microscopy.

Source: Prakash Lab, Stanford University

During a June 2012 TED Talk, Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, spoke about the potential benefits of the paper microscope in identifying malaria in developing countries around the tropical belt. Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite. Left untreated, people with malaria may develop severe complications and die. Prakash described how simple it is to diagnose using a microscope, but people must still wait months for a diagnosis. The problem, he explained, lies with the microscope itself.

Research microscopes are not designed for field diagnosis; they are bulky, expensive, and difficult to maintain. The Foldscope works just like a normal microscope. The user places a microscope slide between the folds of paper, then either projects the image on a wall or holds the micro-lens close enough to the eye to see the specimen. Focusing on an object is as simple as sliding the paper platform in any direction. Because of the unique optical physics of a spherical lens held close to the eye, samples can be magnified up to 2,000 times.

Prakash’s dream is that this ultralow-cost microscope will someday be distributed widely to detect dangerous blood-borne diseases such as malaria, African sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis, and Chagas.

“I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” he said. “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.”

Prakash and the Foldscope team recently launched the Ten Thousand Microscope Project, inviting “scientists, teachers, tinkerers, thinkers, hackers, kids, and alike” to submit ideas on how to beta-test the Foldscope, which will be shipped to the 10,000 most promising applicants in August. His team will compile the results of their experiments into a crowdsourced online manual containing examples collected from the project’s participants.

Prakash’s technical paper on the Foldscope microscope is available here and you can watch his TED Talk below.

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