Paper Centrifuges – Saving Lives for 2 Cents

Simple and effective. . .

This month, in an article published in the scientific journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, a team of Indian researchers revealed that they had found a solution based on whirligig toys. The hand-held, battery-free centrifuges can be made for just 2 cents using alternative materials like paper, string and plastic. The ingenious device has been aptly named the ‘paperfuge’, and will change global healthcare as we know it.

What is a centrifuge?
There are various different types of centrifuge – your average washing machine being one of them. So why are they used by medical professions, and what do they do?

Well, in the world of healthcare, the force created by the spinning is able to separate plasma from whole blood. This enables the isolation of harmful parasites from the patient’s blood sample, meaning that researchers can carry out tests directly relevant to human victims. Any conclusions they make are based on the active disease itself rather than a simulation, which has obvious benefits. This type of testing is called point-of-care testing. In developing countries, medical facilities and organisations simply don’t have the same level of access to advanced machinery. . . but the creation of the paperfuge is set to change this. The device does exactly the same thing as a traditional centrifuge, but it costs next to nothing to make. The only power source it needs is a human being – and they aren’t exactly hard to come by. Because the materials used are so cheap and lightweight, they can be easily 3D printed – which drives down the cost of production. The paperfuge is able to separate plasma from blood in one and a half minutes, and can isolate malaria parasites in 15 minutes. Imagine applying the paperfuge to other diseases, and giving the info to immunologists who can then develop vaccines and treatments. For a bit of cardboard with a piece of string in the middle, that’s ridiculously impressive.

How disruptive are low-cost centrifuges?
For a start, the centrifuge market is massive. By working out how to provide accessible technology, the developers behind the paperfuge have caused established centrifuge manufacturers a real headache. Traditional production and manufacturing will face disruption yet again, as a whole new market springs up around lightweight, paper solutions. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially for businesses who have adopted 3D printing and can churn out cheap products at breakneck speed. One suggested solution to the problem of legacy machinery has been to improve battery technology. . . however, as the paperfuge is powered by human effort, it bypasses batteries full stop. This will be unsettling for companies and startups that have invested their efforts entirely in battery technologies. For obvious reasons, the development of incredibly cheap medical solutions like the paperfuge will positively disrupt the healthcare sector, improving the scope and quality of medical care. On the one hand, this is brilliant news for essentially everybody else.

When it comes to applying new technology, the healthcare industry always stands out as a keen adopter. Medicalised smartphones, wearables and virtual doctors are just a few other recent developments allowing patients to take health into their own hands and make the most out of the sector. But despite the advancements made, expensive, bulky and electricity-powered machinery still holds medical establishments back. These heavy, costly devices are confined to facilities that can afford them. In other words, they are rare in the developing areas that arguably need them most. Centrifuges provide an example of hefty laboratory equipment that can cost thousands of dollars. However, improved battery technology and alternative production materials could solve this problem.

The paperfuge presents yet another example of how technology encourages cost-efficiency and makes the most of available materials. The effects of accessible, quality healthcare across the globe are largely positive, equipping disease-ridden countries with the means to survive. The development of the paperfuge will also cause disruption outside of healthcare, for example in manufacturing and production.

From a business perspective, cheap medical devices pose something of a conundrum – especially for high-tech battery companies, who rely on electricity demand. How corporations respond to an influx of dirt-cheap, potentially life-saving equipment remains to be seen, but one thing is for certain – the Google Cardboard of medical-grade machinery is a step towards making quality healthcare ubiquitous. Undoubtedly, centrifuges won’t be the only legacy medical machines to undergo a total transformation brought about by innovation.

Will medical facilities in developed countries also adopt the paperfuge? What other legacy medical machinery is holding healthcare back? How long will it be before innovation makes the terms ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ countries irrelevant? Comment below with your thoughts and opinions.