A Microscope for the Masses

13 Oct

Bloch, Hannah. WSJ, 10 Oct 2014

Francis Collins, head of the National
Institutes of Health, wrote in his NIH
Director’s blog: “Not only will Foldscope
give health-care workers around
the globe better ways to detect…disease, it
will also place magnifying
power within the reach of all the world’s
students.”

While visiting a semirural Thai hospital
three years ago, bioengineer Manu
Prakash saw a microscope treated as a
museum piece, tucked away in a corner.
He says, “People who were supposed to
use it were afraid of it because if it
breaks, it takes years to get the part fixed.”
Dr. Prakash immediately
sketched out a model for a low-cost,
disposable, nearly indestructible
microscope that no one would fear using.

In the next few weeks, Dr. Prakash’s team
will send out the first batch.
Standard microscopes are expensive,
heavy and hard to transport. Dr.
Prakash’s 0.3-ounce “Foldscope”–made of
sturdy, waterproof paper and parts
including tiny lenses of varying strengths–is assembled via a process
similar to origami. (Unfolded, it is the size
of an A4 sheet of paper, 8.3
by 11.7 inches.) Instructions come in the
form of pictures. Each scope costs
less than a dollar to produce.

Dr. Prakash intends the instrument for
classroom use around the world and as
a tool for diagnosing diseases in the
developing world. Francis Collins,
head of the National Institutes of Health,
wrote in his NIH Director’s blog:
“Not only will Foldscope give health-care
workers around the globe better
ways to detect…disease, it will also place
magnifying power within the
reach of all the world’s students.”

Dr. Prakash says, “We want every single kid
in the world to carry a
microscope in his pocket, kind of like a
pencil.” So many people answered
his call earlier this year for beta testers–who had to propose experiments
for the scope’s use–that Dr. Prakash’s
team boosted the number of kits they
planned to distribute to 50,000 from
10,000. Ideas from 130 countries
included proposals to detect counterfeit
currency, identify camel-milk
pathogens and uncover threats to bee
health. “Sometimes, the ideas are more
important than the instrument itself,” he
says.

As a boy in India, Dr. Prakash, now 34 and
a professor at Stanford
University, cannibalized his brother’s
eyeglasses to make his first DIY
microscope. “My brother snatched back his
glasses and broke my microscope,”
he says. “But I built another.”

In making sure that people construct their
own microscopes, he aims to
demystify the scientific process: “Scientific
tools need to be in our daily
lives and conversations,” he says.

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