Stanford bioengineering professor Manu Prakash, PhD is on a mission. He wants to make it easy for field researchers to identify and diagnose dangerous microbial diseases like malaria, African sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis, Chagas and more.
To do that, he and his team have created the Foldscope — an inexpensive, disposable paper microscope that uses tiny spherical lenses. In addition to a low price point of 50 cents, the Foldscope is remarkably durable, waterproof and adaptable, weighs just under 9 grams, can be built in minutes, requires no external power and, since it travels as a flat, printed sheet, takes up very little space. It has the potential to be a game-changing tool in the world of medicine and microscopy.
“I wanted to make the best possible disease-detection instrument that we could almost distribute for free,” said Prakash. “What came out of this project is what we call use-and-throw microscopy.”
The key to the design’s success is the unique spherical lenses rather than the precision-ground curved glass lenses commonly found in traditional microscopes. The micro-lens is press-fit into a small hole in the center of the slide-mounting platform.
Once a sample is placed between layers of the paper microscope, the user holds the micro-lens close enough to one eye that eyebrows touch the paper. A thumb and forefinger grasp each end of a paper strip, the platform. Focusing and locating a target object are achieved by flexing and sliding the paper platform with the thumb and fingers. In this way, samples can be magnified up to 2,000 times.
Foldscope models have been developed for several types of microscopy — brightfield, darkfield, fluorescence, polarization and projection, so far. More disease specific optimization is planned. Prakash are also taking aim at education, hoping to inspire children to explore and learn from the microscopic world by putting the easy to use devices in the hands of students.
“A universal program providing a microscope for every child could foster deep interest in science at an early age,” said Prakash. “My dream is that someday, every kid will have a Foldscope in their back pocket.”
The Stanford team is presently soliciting 10,000 beta-testers for the Foldscope, as part of The Ten Thousand Microscopes Project, funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Those that would like to test the microscopes in a variety of settings and generate an open source biology/microscopy field manual are encouraged to apply at the Foldscope website or by sending an email to signup (at) foldscope (dot) com. Kits will be shipped in August 2014 to the applicants with the best ideas for using and documenting the microscope use.