2-Cent Children’s Toy a Healthcare Breakthrough for Poor Communities

Manu Prakash, a young assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, is at the forefront of an incredible healthcare breakthrough. He calls it the “paperfuge”. The invention mimics the action of the whirligig, an ancient children’s toy that uses a simple disc attached to string that causes a spinning motion when pulled.

Back in 2013, while Prakash was touring healthcare facilities throughout Uganda, he found a centrifuge being used to prop open a door. In a country with no electricity, the otherwise expensive and lifesaving medical device was rendered no more helpful then well, a doorstop.

After speaking with area doctors and healthcare workers, Prakash realized the widespread need for centrifuges to help diagnose blood diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV. But they needed to be cheap, lightweight, and require little more than manpower.

Returning to the States, Prakash began searching for children’s toys that mirrored the spinning motion of modern centrifuges. Finding that yo-yos didn’t produce enough rotational speed, he began considering the whirligig. It was perfect, and only cost 2 cents to make.

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The paperfuge had arrived.

Here’s how it works:

  • A single blood sample is secured onto a polymer-covered paper disc.
  • Strings pass through the center of the disc.
  • A piece of wood is attached to each end of the strings.
  • Grasp the wood handles and pull strings, causing the disc and sample to spin.

During trial runs, the paperfuge was recorded as spinning at 125,000 revolutions/per minute, more than enough speed to separate plasma from the blood in less than two minutes. Seeking real-life application, Prakash brought the paperfuge to Madagascar’s and invited its healthcare community to test its efficacy. It was a profound success.

In a time of radical technological advancements, Prakash is going back to the basics. And it’s made all the difference.

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