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Stanford University

How a Child’s Toy Inspired a Super-Cheap Paper Centrifuge

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Stanford University

Scientists at Stanford University have built a super-cheap, super-fast centrifuge out of everyday items. Their inspiration? A simple spinning toy. The team described their invention in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering.

Biophysicist Manu Prakash is on a quest to make scientific and medical equipment cheaper and more accessible for everyone. He’s developed parasite-detecting skin patches and computers that run on drops of water. Last year, he made a splash with the introduction of the Foldoscope—an inexpensive, DIY paper microscope that users can assemble themselves. His goal is to distribute 1 million to schools worldwide by the end of 2017. 

For his next trick, Prakash turned his attention to the centrifuge, a machine that spins rapidly to separate blood samples into their component parts. Centrifuging is a basic and crucial element of conducting blood tests like the one for malaria, yet many clinics around the world either cannot afford a machine or don’t have access to the electricity required to power it. “I realized that if we wanted to solve a critical problem like malaria diagnosis,” Prakash said in a statement, “we needed to design a human-powered centrifuge that costs less than a cup of coffee.”

He brought the problem back to his lab and began brainstorming with postdoctoral research fellow Saad Bhamla. They realized that the centrifuge’s primary job is simply to spin—the same job shared by thousands of years of children’s toys. They brought in armloads of old toys and pieces and set to work playing with them.

One evening, Prakash was spinning a simple whirligig device that he’d made from a button and some string. He decided to set up a high-speed camera to see how fast the thing could go. When he checked the tape, he was amazed. The crude setup was powerful enough to get the button spinning 10,000 to 15,000 times per minute.

The next step was rigging the center disk to hold and process samples. After a few weeks of experimentation, Prakash had his prototype: a paper disk loaded with thin tubes of blood.

Not content to let it rest there, he and Bhamla recruited a team of mathematicians and asked them to optimize the new paper machine. “We realized that this is a toy that no one had thought about,” he told The Atlantic. “The physics of how it works weren’t understood, and its fundamental limits were completely unknown. So we spent six months thinking about the math, all with the goal of asking how fast it could really go.”

The answer: a staggering 125,000 revolutions per minute—which the team believes is the fastest rotational speed ever recorded for a human-powered object. (“We have submitted an application to Guinness World Records,” they note in the paper.) This “paperfuge,” as they call it, can separate liquid blood from plasma in just two minutes. In 15 minutes, it can extract malaria parasites from a drop of blood.

This exceptional speed is just part of the paperfuge’s appeal. The rest comes in its dirt-cheap construction. The final prototype is made out of waterproof paper, Velcro, drinking straws, and fishing line. It weighs less than 2 grams and can be produced for about 20 cents. And this, Prakash says, is the key: “Frugal science is about democratizing scientific tools to get them out to people around the world.”

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Health
New Test Can Differentiate Between Tick-borne Illnesses
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Time is of the essence in diagnosing and treating Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. Fortunately, one new test may be able to help. A report on the test was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Ticks and the diseases they carry are on the rise. One 2016 study found deer ticks—the species that carries Lyme disease—in more than half of the counties in the United States.

The two most common tick-borne illnesses in the U.S. are Lyme disease and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). Although their initial symptoms can be the same, they’re caused by different pathogens; Lyme disease comes from infection with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. We don’t know what causes STARI.

"It is extremely important to be able to tell a patient they have Lyme disease as early as possible so they can be treated as quickly as possible," microbiologist and first author Claudia Molins of the CDC said in a statement. "Most Lyme disease infections are successfully treated with a two- to three-week course of oral antibiotics." Infections that aren't treated can lead to fevers, facial paralysis, heart palpitations, nerve pain, arthritis, short-term memory loss, and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

But to date, scientists have yet to create an accurate, consistent early test for Lyme disease, which means people must often wait until they’re very ill. And it’s hard to test for the STARI pathogen when we don’t know what it is.

One team of researchers led by experts at Colorado State University was determined to find a better way. They realized that, rather than looking for pathogens, they could look at the way a person’s body responded to the pathogens.

They analyzed blood samples from patients with both early-stage Lyme disease and STARI. Their results showed that while all patients’ immune systems had mounted a response, the nature of that response was different.

"We have found that all of these infections and diseases are associated with an inflammatory response, but the alteration of the immune response, and the metabolic profiles aren't all the same," senior author John Belisle of CSU said.

Two distinct profiles emerged. The team had found physical evidence, or biomarkers, for each illness: a way to tell one disease from another.

Belisle notes that there’s still plenty of work to do.

"The focus of our efforts is to develop a test that has a much greater sensitivity, and maintains that same level of specificity," Belisle said. "We don't want people to receive unnecessary treatment if they don't have Lyme disease, but we want to identify those who have the disease as quickly as possible."

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The Body
11 Interesting Facts About Lymph Nodes

The human body is an amazing thing. For each one of us, it's the most intimate object we know. And yet most of us don't know enough about it: its features, functions, quirks, and mysteries. Our series The Body explores human anatomy, part by part. Think of it as a mini digital encyclopedia with a dose of wow.

The lymphatic system is a crucial part of your body's ability to fight off infection and viruses. It's a key player in the immune system that functions by circulating lymphatic fluid through a series of lymph vessels all throughout your body. This fluid gathers up anything foreign, such as viruses and bacteria from your body tissues and flushes them to your lymph nodes, where immune cells attack whatever isn't helping your body. 

Mental Floss spoke to Adriana Medina, an internal medicine doctor with a specialty in hematology and oncology at the Alvin and Lois Lapidus Cancer Institute at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, about these important tissues. 

1. THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF NODES.

They're about size and shape of a pea, and hundreds of them are scattered all throughout the body. In order to fight many little pathogens and clear out unhelpful debris, your body needs a lot of nodes to rally to these causes, according to Medina. 

2. LYMPH NODES ARE HOME TO IMPORTANT IMMUNE CELLS.

"The lymph nodes are in charge of harboring lymphocytes," says Medina. Your body makes two main types of these immune cells, B-lymphocytes and T-lymphocytes (or B- and T-cells), which are crucial to your body's ability to fight off infections of all kinds. There are many sub-classes of the T-cells because "they are very important to attack infection," says Medina.

3. LYMPHOCYTES ESCORT FOREIGN INVADERS OUT.

When your lymph nodes receive some sort of foreign debris they recognize isn't ours, Medina says, "the B-lymphocytes are in charge of making antibodies." These antibodies "leave with the toxic substance," and signal other immune cells to come in and attack the cells.

4. WHERE DO ALL THE TOXINS GO?

Once the lymphatic fluid has grabbed up its targets, most of it returns to your blood stream, Medina explains, which is why it's so important for lymph cells to do their job: kill what aims to harm you before it gets flushed back into your system.

5. THERE ARE MANY CAUSES OF SWOLLEN LYMPH NODES.

When your immune system senses a foreign invader, be it a virus, bacteria, vaccine, or even some medications, it preps the lymph nodes to make antibodies and lymphocytes to fight off the offender. This also increases the amount of lymphatic fluid in the node, which can make it swollen and tender. Most of the time swollen lymph nodes are not a big cause for concern.

6. A HARD, RUBBERY LYMPH NODE IS A PROBLEM.

A lymph node that is harder rather than soft and persists for several weeks is worth a doctor visit. While lymph nodes can be tender or swollen and mobile when infected, "when there is a [cancerous] malignance…they're hard, rubbery, they don't move, and they don't go away. The lymph nodes are always telling us something."

7. YOU ARE THE PUMP FOR YOUR LYMPHATIC SYSTEM.

Unlike your blood, which has the heart to pump it through your body, your lymphatic fluid doesn't have a pump. Instead, it relies upon gravity and pressure, which you create when you move around, as well as light massage.

8. WHERE YOU FIND VEINS, YOU FIND LYMPHATIC VESSELS.

The lymphatic system and the circulatory system are separate systems, but connected, running in tandem like underground networks of streams. "Lymphatic vessels are distributed along the body wherever we have arteries [or] veins," says Medina.

9. YOUR LYMPH NODES AND YOUR SPLEEN WORK TOGETHER.

"The spleen is like one big lymph node," Medina says of the organ that lives between your stomach and diaphragm. "The spleen is able to produce additional blood cells in case we need it to." Additionally, she explains, many toxic substances are filtrated through the spleen. However, if something happens to your spleen and it needs to be removed, you can live without it; you just may become more prone to infection and require more vaccinations to protect you against aggressive viruses.

10. STAGES OF CANCER ARE DETERMINED BY THE NUMBER OF AFFECTED LYMPH NODES.

The easiest cancers to treat are those that remain in the tissue where they first occur. However, in metastatic cancers, cancer cells migrate to the lymph nodes, which can cause cancer to spread. "When the cancer is detected in lymph nodes, we have to try to find out how many lymph nodes are involved," Medina says. "Lymph node involvements [determines] the prognosis of the cancer." When lymph node involvement occurs, "the treatment has to be more aggressive," she says, often adding radiation to a regime of chemotherapy and other drugs.

11. RESEARCHERS ARE TURNING THE BODY'S OWN LYMPHOCYTES INTO CANCER FIGHTING TREATMENTS.

Breakthroughs in immunotherapy known as Car T-cell therapy turn the body's own immune system into a weapon against cancer by engineering patients' own immune cells to recognize and attack their tumors, according to the National Cancer Institute. "What's happening—it's just beautiful—is that [researchers] are using B-lymphocytes to fight not only breast cancer, but leukemia and lymphomas," Medina explains. "The results are so good and encouraging, changing chances of survival."

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