One Of The World’s Oldest Toys Is Now Being Used As A Medical Miracle To Save Millions Of Lives

Updated January 19, 2017

Many health clinics in developing countries like Uganda do not have reliable electricity. That’s why devices, like a centrifuge – which spins liquids at high speeds so particles within sink to the bottom – are little better than a glorified paperweight. But items like centrifuges, which are as essential to modern medicine as saucepans are to your kitchen, cannot be operated in medical clinics in the third world.

While some machinery needs electricity to function, doctors and other medical professionals have re-purposed one ancient toy to help them perform some basic tests like those requiring a centrifuge.

Learn more about this breakthrough as you continue to read below!

Manu Prakash visited a Ugandan clinic in 2013 and found them using their invaluable centrifuge as a doorstop – because they did not have electricity.

“On a chart, [the Uganda center] listed all the tests that they do, but they were only really doing two out of 10,” recalls Prakash. “The other eight required centrifugation. I’ve seen this play out over and over again. It was clear that we needed a centrifuge that could operate without electric power.”

Prakash has created the centrifuge, which does not need electricity, modeling if after an ancient toy. With just paper, string, and tape, Prakash’s invention can spin at speeds upward of 125,000 rotations per minute.

This can easily separate cells or malaria parasites from blood samples. And it is actually faster than most electricity operated centrifuges.

This entirely hand-made device can be created with parts that are valued at just 20 cents. It is called the paperfuge.

“This type of innovation has the potential to support the creation of cost-appropriate, rapid, and robust diagnostics that can be administered by local health care workers in the lowest-resource communities in the world,” says Carol Dahl, Executive Director of the Lemelson Foundation.

Prakash, a Stanford University researcher who grew up in India is famous for making devices like this. Last year, he created a $1 pocket microscope using a folded sheet of paper. He earned the MacArthur “genius grant” to work on these life-saving projects.

To create the centrifuge, Prakash’s team started with yo-yos but found they only spun at 4,000 rpm, which was too slow.

“So, I asked the [team] to bring more toys into the lab,” Prakash says. And someone brought in a button spinner.

The toy, known as a buzzer and part of the whirligig family, has been around for about 5,000 years. And one of these spins at an astonishing 10,000 rpm.

“We realized that this is a toy that no one had thought about,” he says. “The physics of how it works weren’t understood and its fundamental limits were completely unknown. So, we spent six months thinking about the math, all with the goal of asking how fast it could really go.”

Now, in less than 2-minutes of spinning, Prakash’s paperfuge can separate the liquid plasma of blood from the cells within it – an essential diagnosis step in many medical tests.

“It’s so simple and yet so clever,” says Andres Martinez from California Polytechnic State University, who also works on cheap diagnostic tools. “Beyond the potential applications of the [paperfuge], I think it will inspire others to think about how other simple technologies could be applied toward improving life in developing areas of the world.”

Check out the video below to learn more about this creative invention today!

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