How toys can save lives

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    Hacking toys for health care

Hacking toys for health care 00:37

Jose Gomez-Marquez is the Program Director for Innovations in International Health at MIT and heads up the Little Devices Lab, where he uses toy parts to create inexpensive medical devices for developing countries. Watch The Next List’s full profile on Jose Gomez-Marquez, Sunday July 15th at 2 p.m. ET on CNN.

Jose Gomez-Marquez can turn a toy helicopter into an inhaler. Or make a nebulizer with a bicycle pump. He believes everyone in the world deserves proper medical devices, even if they can’t afford them.

And that’s where toys come in.

“When you look at a toy today, you’re actually looking at an engineered part,” says Gomez-Marquez. “They are mechanical bits and pieces. Sometimes there’s even chemistry that you can harvest from a toy.”

Walk into Jose Gomez-Marquez’s Little Devices Lab at MIT and you’ll see toys and medical devices – everywhere.

    “When you're using toys, it demystifies the process of medical technology,” says Gomez-Marquez. “You may not have the courage to hack a $1,000 device, but you definitely have the courage to hack something that's $5. And then, if you add a little bit of ingenuity, it becomes something as powerful as a $1,000 medical device.”

    Gomez-Marquez wants to empower, as he puts it, the “MacGyver doctor and the hacker nurse” in small villages in developing countries with little resources. So he’s teaching them not only how to find the right toys to “hack,” or repurpose for medical devices, but he’s giving them the basic building blocks with MEDIKits.

    “A MEDIKit is essentially a collection of Lego-like construction blocks … erector sets for medical technologies, whether it's in the developing world or in health care in America,” says Gomez-Marquez. “When you open up a kit you may find a bicycle pump with a toy helicopter, Legos, color coded, and paired with re-agents that snap on together, and create new types of diagnostics tests.”

    The point is to empower medical communities in developing countries with simple, inexpensive tools to create medical devices that would normally be very expensive. And Gomez-Marquez hopes to bring MEDIKits to assist people domestically too.

    “Affordability is often linked to quality when we have discussions about health care in America,” he says. “And if we can distribute that ability to innovate to everyday people and doctors … in that rural clinic in Kansas or Michigan or Appalachia, where they also need telemedicine. They also need remote diagnostics and easy to use tools that will go anywhere. It makes complete sense.”

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