Inexpensive Paper Microscope Detects Malaria and Tuberculosis

The Foldscope costs less than $1 in parts, making it easily accessible to people all over the world.
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The Foldscope costs less than $1 in parts, making it easily accessible to people all over the world.

Photo Credit: Foldscope

Microscopes might seem like an easy enough tool to come by, but the opposite is true for the developing world. However, diseases like African sleeping sickness and schistosomiasis are usually detected using a microscope, leading doctors to the proper treatment for patients. When some areas in the developing world do have a microscope, it's expensive, bulky and fragile. 

A biophysicist named Manu Prakash wants to bring microscopes to each corner of the world to aid in treating life-threatening diseases, while also providing science education. He created a paper microscope called the Foldscope that can be mass produced, costing less than a dollar for 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,” Prakash said

The Foldscope is being produced by the Department of Bioengineering at Stanford University, where Prakash leads a research group. The microscope itself can be assembled in about five minutes using a sheet of paper, a micro lens, a 3-volt battery, LED, and other parts such as tape and a switch. Users simply have to print out the pattern, fold along the lines shown and assemble the parts in the slots provided. The end result is a bookmark-sized microscope that can be modified to detect different diseases. Some versions will require a single lens that costs 17 cents, while others require multiple lenses and filters. 

Regular medical microscopes require a power source which make it difficult to use in developing countries where electricity might not always be available. They are also quite fragile and don't always make it to said countries in tact. 

The Foldscope is durable (it can be stepped on or dropped without breaking), is lightweight, waterproof and doesn't require an external power source. Thanks to its low cost, it can be thrown away to prevent the spread of diseases. And, the device is very effective. It can achieve magnification of 2,000 times, which is about the same as desktop instruments costing around $1,000. 

The Foldscope is not yet commercially available, but Prakash and his team are working to improve the microscope's resolution to 700 nanometers so that it can detect diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. Additionally, the team hopes the device can be used as an educational resource. 

 "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 Foldscope website reads.


Photo Credit: Foldscope