Progress does not always mean complex new technology. It sometimes comes in the form of the simplest objects, like the Foldscope, an unusual microscope invented in 2014, of which one million have already been sold in 150 countries. It has several distinctive features: composed primarily of paper, it can be assembled in just a few minutes with origami-style folding. It fits in your pocket and, most importantly, costs less than $1.
Foldscope: hope in the fight against malaria
The device developed by Manu Prakash and Jim Cybulski in a biology laboratory at Stanford University can be printed on an ordinary sheet of paper. Both portable and affordable, it was recognized by the MIT Technology Review as one of the ten recent low-tech inventions to have changed the world–and with good reason. Weighing only 8 grams, the Foldscope can run on a single battery for up to fifty hours, offers 2,000-fold magnification for a resolution of 2 microns, enabling it to rival the microscopes normally used for scientific research.
The Foldscope’s features allow users to observe body tissue, bacteria, blood cells and single-cell organisms. It can therefore be used to detect the parasites that cause malaria, as well as other diseases such as leishmaniasis, trypanosomiasis and tuberculosis. Depending on the color of the LED lamp, it can even identify certain fluorescent proteins and molecules.
Foldscope can therefore bring science and medicine more easily to the most remote areas of India, Iraq, Syria and the Philippines. This possibility brings hope of reducing epidemics, such as that of malaria, which affected 229 million people around the world in 2019 and caused 409,000 deaths.
The simple act of screening for the disease makes it possible to treat it in time and limit its spread. However, the high cost of blood sample analysis remains a major barrier to containing the disease in poor countries.
A microscope for healthcare professionals… and children
The first prototype of Foldscope dates back to 2010. The goal of the two researchers was to create a small, sturdy and inexpensive microscope in order to make it accessible to both healthcare professionals and scientists in the world’s poorest regions, as well as to children. The idea was to allow them to check for themselves whether the water they drink is sufficiently clean.
This led to the creation of an instrument with a revolutionary concept, with a paper structure to be assembled, a tiny lens, a button cell battery and an LED, all for only 97cents (€0.80). And using the microscope is not much more complicated: just position your eye close enough to the lens to allow your eyebrow to touch the paper, then focus by adjusting the tool’s tabs with your thumbs.
Thanks to support from the Moore Foundation, a program was launched in 2014 to distribute 60,000 of these microscopes in over 135 countries. Recipients were only asked to do one thing in return: publish their discoveries on the Microcosmos online platform, which brings together Foldscope users from around the world–and has now become the largest community of microscopy enthusiasts.
The Foldscope: a tool for science education
This is how the two founders discovered that their invention had been used to identify the eggs of pests on farms in India, conduct an inventory of arthropod biodiversity in the Amazon, detect bacteria in samples of river water, and perform mapping of pollen diversity in the city. Even more surprisingly, it had been used to detect counterfeit currency and medicine. In short, it has popularized microscopic analysis.
In addition to these applications, the Foldscope has proven to be a wonderful tool for educating the public, especially young people, about science. “Through our production of low-cost tools, we aim to break down the price barrier between people and the curiosity and excitement of scientific exploration,” asserts Foldscope Instruments Inc. While this mission has not yet been accomplished in all the areas where it is needed, it is on the right track.
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