Many of the world’s most fatal and gruesome infectious diseases can be detected with a simple microscope. Doctors, though, often skip this step, as the $1,000 to $10,000 needed for a microscope can be prohibitive. As a result, people often live with diseases that could be cured, or they take drugs that might not be tailored to their specific parasites, leading to the development of drug-resistant strains.
But what if you could create a microscope that could be mass manufactured for pennies and be durable enough to survive a curb stomp? That’s the question Stanford University researcher Manu Prakash’s lab has been wrestling with over the last couple of years. Their answer is the Foldscope, a kind of microscope constructed out of greeting card paper, a watch battery, and a cheap lens that can diagnose roughly 20 infectious diseases, including malaria.
The cost: Between 50 cents and $3, depending on the Foldscope you want. And if you need to make your image bigger, projection Foldscopes can throw your magnification onto the wall.
The engineering feat, Prakash says, lies in the Foldscope’s extremely short optical path. "It’s between 2 millimeters to 200 microns," says Prakash, who has jumped on the Foldscope to show how hardy it is. "That’s almost like a grain of salt, and if you stand on a grain of salt you can’t crush it, because it’s a grain of salt." It’s water-resistant, too. The Foldscope uses the same kind of coating that paper currency does to save it from getting soggy.
To actually test the Foldscope, however, Prakash and his team have traveled across the U.S., to India, Thailand, Nigeria, and Uganda to see how 1,000 devices work in the field. And often, they’ll find skilled lab technicians who simply lack the proper equipment. Prakash sees the Foldscopes as an opportunity to take advantage of existing "human capital," but also provide teaching opportunities. He’s deliberately designed the Foldscope so anyone might be able to assemble it, regardless of his or her spoken language.
That’s also part of the reason why Prakash’s lab is releasing the microscopes for a public test this summer. Some 10,000 citizen scientist volunteers will beta-test the Foldscope over the summer, drafting up short science experiments in the process. These can be extremely simple, Prakash adds—like what kind of organisms the mold in your fridge might be hosting.
"We were basically trying to generate a bridge between global health and science education," Prakash says. "The fact that we are ignorant about this microscopic world is really one of the reasons we have terrible diseases in the first place, because if you don’t make a behavioral change, you can’t eliminate diseases."
To sign up for a Foldscope beta test, click here.