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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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History
The Doctor Who Modernized Royal Births—in the 1970s
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Gary Stone/Getty Images

When Prince William eventually ascends to the English throne, he’ll be the first British monarch ever born in a hospital. And he has a man named George Pinker to thank for that.

Royal births have always been fraught affairs due to the thorny issues of birthright and succession. Throughout history, English royal women were expected to give birth in rooms filled with spectators and witnesses—in part to avoid a pretender to the throne being switched with the royal baby at birth.

That made childbirth a grueling ceremony for queens, many of whom had to give birth to stillborn or dying children in the company of scores of strangers. In 1688, after 11 tragic attempts to produce an heir to James II’s throne, Mary of Modena gave birth in front of an audience of 67 people. (It was even worse for Marie Antoinette, who gave birth in 1778 in front of so many people the onlookers nearly crushed her.) And even after births became more private affairs, archbishops and officials attended them as late as 1936.

Of course, doctors have long been part of that crowd. The royal household—the group of support staff that helps royals at their various residences—has included physicians for hundreds of years, who have often been called upon to perform various gynecological duties for royal women. They have frequently been dispatched to serve other family members, too, especially those giving birth to important heirs.

Even when hospitals became popular places for childbirth at the turn of the last century, English royals continued having kids at home in their palaces, castles, and houses. Elizabeth II was delivered via Caesarean section in 1926 at her grandmother’s house in London. When she became queen, her royal surgeon gynecologists recommended she deliver her children at home, bringing in equipment to turn the space into a maternity ward.

Yet it was one of her gynecologists, John Peel, who ended up changing his tune on delivering children in hospitals, and in the 1970s he published an influential report that recommended all women do so. When he stepped down in 1973, the queen’s new royal gynecologist, George Pinker, insisted the royals get in line, too.

Pinker was different from his predecessors. For one, he skipped out on a potential career in opera to practice medicine. He had been offered a contract with an opera company, but when asked to choose between music and medicine, the choice was clear. Instead, he stayed involved with music—becoming assistant concert director at the Reading Symphony Orchestra and vice president of the London Choral Society—while maintaining his medical career.

He was also the youngest doctor ever to practice as royal surgeon gynecologist—just 48 when he was appointed. He supported controversial medical advances like in vitro fertilization. And he insisted that his patients’ welfare—not tradition—dictate royal births.

“It is very important for mothers to accept modern medical assistance and not to feel guilty if they need epidural or a Caesarean,” he told an interviewer. Pinker recommended that pregnant women lead as normal a life as possible—no easy task for royals whose every move was spied on and picked apart by the public. In fact, the doctor being anywhere near the queen or her family, even when he was not there to treat a pregnant woman, was seen as a sign that a royal was pregnant.

When Princess Diana delivered her first son, it was at a royal room in a hospital. “Most people marveled at the decision to have the royal baby in such surroundings rather than Buckingham Palace,” wrote The Guardian’s Penny Chorlton. Turns out the surroundings were pretty plush anyway: Diana delivered in her very own wing of the hospital.

Pinker served as the queen’s royal gynecologist for 17 years, delivering nine royal babies in all, including Prince William and Prince Harry. All were born at hospitals. So were William’s two children—under supervision of the royal gynecologist, of course.

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Big Questions
What Is the Difference Between Generic and Name Brand Ibuprofen?
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iStock

What is the difference between generic ibuprofen vs. name brands?

Yali Friedman:

I just published a paper that answers this question: Are Generic Drugs Less Safe than their Branded Equivalents?

Here’s the tl;dr version:

Generic drugs are versions of drugs made by companies other than the company which originally developed the drug.

To gain FDA approval, a generic drug must:

  • Contain the same active ingredients as the innovator drug (inactive ingredients may vary)
  • Be identical in strength, dosage form, and route of administration
  • Have the same use indications
  • Be bioequivalent
  • Meet the same batch requirements for identity, strength, purity, and quality
  • Be manufactured under the same strict standards of FDA's good manufacturing practice regulations required for innovator products

I hope you found this answer useful. Feel free to reach out at www.thinkbiotech.com. For more on generic drugs, you can see our resources and whitepapers at Pharmaceutical strategic guidance and whitepapers

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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