One of the greatest barriers to practising science in the developing world is the lack of access to expensive analytical instruments and equipment, some often unheard of by a researcher unless they’ve had the chance to visit a well-equipped lab. This can be a significant problem in clinical labs, where ensuring quality results is critical, and testing can make all the difference between succumbing to an infectious disease and fighting it (1, 2).
Dr. Manu Prakash at Stanford, a physicist whose mission is to improve global health through the use of ultra-affordable devices, introduced the concept of ‘frugal science’. The idea is to go back to the basics: use crude tools and easily accessible materials to design complex devices that preferably don’t need external power to operate, eliminating several of the hurdles that prevent adoption of biomedical devices in resource-poor settings.
It is not easy to innovate without relying on advanced technology at a time where technology is a valuable commodity. But accessibility should be a priority if the tools and the benefits they bring are to reach those in dire need of them. Recognizing the cause of this stark divide between developed and developing countries, researchers are coming forward to develop simple devices to stand as alternatives to expensive, complex equipment. Consider the egg beater centrifuge or bubble wraps for storing liquid samples. At Columbia University, a smartphone dongle was developed for less than $34 to replace laboratory immunoassays, which was successfully tested in Rwandan health centres to detect HIV and syphillis markers in patients’ blood. A microfluidic pump made from latex balloons and stockings could deliver pressures upto 25 kPa, without requiring any power input, all at an astonishing price of $2 (!). For laboratory equipment, open-source designs may be the way forward in driving down the costs of assay systems; the website ‘Lab On The Cheap’ is religiously updated with news about these open-source laboratory hardware. Making these designs openly available would allow researchers and even DIY enthusiasts from any part of the world to not just build the tools they need themselves, but also modify the designs as they see fit, a possibility unimaginable with proprietary technology. In fact, during this pandemic, MIT’s low-cost ventilator design was made publicly available, which supported citizen science efforts to address a critical need. Students at an Afghan school built a ventilator based on those ideas, putting their own spin on it, by utilizing parts sourced from used cars.
To address global challenges, a concerted effort is crucial. The onus is on the scientists themselves to make science and scientific solutions more accessible.
Tesfazghi, Merih T. “The Challenges Of Clinical Laboratories In Developing Countries”. Lablogatory, 2017, https://labmedicineblog.com/2017/11/06/the-challenges-of-clinical-laboratories-in-developing-countries/. Accessed 21 Mar 2020.
De Cock, K M et al. “Prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission in resource-poor countries: translating research into policy and practice.” JAMA vol. 283,9 (2000): 1175-82. doi:10.1001/jama.283.9.1175