Medical research laboratories are filled with expensive equipment of the latest technology to catalyse important discoveries. But science does not always have to be costly, as the idea of “frugal science” developed by Manu Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering, comes into play.

Prakash is dedicated to the advancement of “frugal science”, a type of research focusing on the development of scientific tools that are far cheaper and more accessible to the average person.

“The question is far more important than the tools you use to answer them,” he says.

The Foldscope: an origami microscope

The invention that has garnered the most attention is the Foldscope, a portable origami-like microscope assembled from a single sheet of paper with embedded electronics and lenses. It has a low manufacturing cost of roughly 50 cents per microscope, while still managing to be both rugged and functional, providing magnification up to 2000x.

"The capabilities of Foldscope are equivalent to conventional microscopes that cost thousands of dollars," Prakash says.

Already, 50,000 units were printed last year, and there are plans to scale up production to one million microscopes this year.

His goal is to garner interest in physical science and encourage people throughout the world to use his inventions to solve local problems. To that end, he has also set up a website for Foldscope users from around the world, to share their findings made with the device.

“The long-term goal is truly to build completely new kinds of things,” Prakash says.

The Paperfuge: a 20-cent centrifuge

The Foldscope is not his only invention. “There are a billion people on this planet who live with no electricity, no infrastructure, no roads, and they have the same kind of health care needs that you and I have,” Prakash observes.

Keeping that in mind, his lab has come up with the Paperfuge, a portable hand-powered centrifuge made from paper, plastic and string costing just 20 cents, which can spin at up to 125,000 rpm, fast enough to separate plasma from a blood sample in 90 seconds.

For reference, a StatSpin MP centrifuge (one of the commercial centrifuges) has a maximum spin speed at 15,800 rpm, and can take up to two minutes to perform a plasma separation. It also weighs more than 2kg, in contrast with the 2g that the Paperfuge weighs.

The implication is that diagnosis of infections like malaria and HIV can be done far more easily and cheaply, as it requires no electricity, complicated machinery, costly replacement parts, nor vehicles for transport from one location to another.

In the making: a diagnostic microchip

Prakash is also working on another citizen science device: a tiny microfluidic chip with a production cost of five dollars. Functioning with a punchcard and a handcrank to set chemical reactions in motion, tiny droplets of mosquito saliva from bites can be collected and screened for pathogens.

If such information is available to public health researchers throughout the world, the epidemics caused by mosquito-borne diseases may be predicted and caught early on.

Inventions that allow people to discover the world - together

Prakash credits his innovative brain children to his fascination with the living and non-living systems of the natural world, and the ways that their behaviours often resemble one another. It is something that has stayed with him since childhood, where he grew up playing in an abandoned chemistry lab in Rampur, India.

Prakash’s creative and functional inventions have gained recognition – last year on 21 September, he was one of 23 to receive the MacArthur “Genius Grant”, which entails a sum of $625,000 paid over five years, with no further obligations beyond the continuation of their activities. The grant is awarded annually to US residents or citizens who are nominated for the demonstration of “extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

“Manu has a kind of vision which is very unique, in that it’s not just about making something cheap,” commented Lakshminarayan Iyer, a computational biologist at the National Institutes of Health who is also a Foldscope ‘superuser’.

“It’s also about building a community ... and giving the opportunities for people to go out and share their observations or build something around them.” MIMS

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