Researchers believe that the simple spinning mechanics of a whirligig toy could help diagnose blood diseases in the developing world.
Stanford University
Researchers believe that the simple spinning mechanics of a whirligig toy could help diagnose blood diseases in the developing world.
Now playing
01:19
Toy inspires cheap medical device
Now playing
03:44
Do the 1990s hold the key to sustainable websites?
Now playing
01:10
Watch SpaceX land its Mars rocket prototype for the first time
Now playing
05:52
The climate crisis is taking these farmers' most valuable resource
U.S. President Donald Trump works on his phone during a roundtable at the State Dining Room of the White House June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump held a roundtable discussion with Governors and small business owners on the reopening of American's small business. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump works on his phone during a roundtable at the State Dining Room of the White House June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump held a roundtable discussion with Governors and small business owners on the reopening of American's small business. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:37
Facebook Oversight Board: Indefinite suspension of Trump's account is 'not appropriate'
Now playing
03:41
How technology at NASA helps guide Biden on climate
Now playing
01:42
A vaccine without needles? It's on the way
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 06:  Host Conan O'Brien speaks onstage during the 5th Annual NFL Honors at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on February 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Host Conan O'Brien speaks onstage during the 5th Annual NFL Honors at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on February 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:48
Conan announces his last show after 30 years in late night
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Now playing
03:14
Will Trump be allowed back on Facebook? This board will decide
CNN
Now playing
05:16
WTF is a SPAC?
Now playing
01:51
A shortage of tanker truck drivers could cause stations to run out of gas
CEO at Verizon Media K. Guru Gowrappan appears at the 2019 Verizon Media NewFront on April 30, 2019 in New York City.
Noam Galai/Getty Images for Verizon Media
CEO at Verizon Media K. Guru Gowrappan appears at the 2019 Verizon Media NewFront on April 30, 2019 in New York City.
Now playing
02:47
Verizon sells off Yahoo and AOL
Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, attends the 2019 annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, May 3, 2019. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images
Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, attends the 2019 annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, May 3, 2019. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
02:40
Warren Buffett warns on US inflation
Now playing
01:00
Astronauts splash down after record-setting mission
ATLANTA - APRIL 30:  A Boeing 757 with a new Delta Airlines logo sits on the tarmac following the company's emergence from bankruptcy at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport April 30,2007 in Atlanta, Georgia. The 757 sports new branding that will appear on more than 900 planes, at airports and on advertising.  (Photo by Barry Williams/Getty Images) 757
Barry Williams/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
ATLANTA - APRIL 30: A Boeing 757 with a new Delta Airlines logo sits on the tarmac following the company's emergence from bankruptcy at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport April 30,2007 in Atlanta, Georgia. The 757 sports new branding that will appear on more than 900 planes, at airports and on advertising. (Photo by Barry Williams/Getty Images) 757
Now playing
02:28
Why Delta airlines is resuming selling middle seats
Now playing
02:50
Grocery chain says 'hero pay' forcing them to close stores

Story highlights

Using paper, fishing line and straws, researchers built a human-powered centrifuge

The whirligig-inspired tool cost 20 cents to make

(CNN) —  

With inspiration from an ancient toy, researchers believe that the simple spinning mechanics of a whirligig could help in the diagnosis of malaria, HIV and other diseases around the world, according to a new study.

Whirligigs, buzzers and other spinning toys that date to 3300 B.C. consisted largely of string and an object to spin, like a button or even a piece of bone. Today, diagnostics rely heavily on centrifuges, machines with rapidly rotating containers that separate fluids of different densities through centrifugal force.

Manu Prakash, assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, credits his fascination with toys and his experience growing up in India, where he didn’t have access to the scientific tools he needed, to drawing a comparison between the two.

Centrifuges can help isolate and detect low levels of infection, pathogens and parasites in blood, urine and stool samples. But due to their high cost – upward of a thousand dollars per machine in some cases – they aren’t always available where they are needed most. They also rely on electricity and can’t be used in the field.

“A couple of years ago, I experienced a moment in Uganda while talking to primary health workers, which made me realize centrifuges are a critical part of a diagnostics lab infrastructure, and they were missing from most places,” Prakash said. “Even places that have them, either they break in the field or, because of no electricity, are not even used. I saw one being used as a doorstop.

“I came back and began looking for a solution that would be human-powered and cost pennies so that a billion people who live with no infrastructure and resources can afford them.”

In his lab, Prakash and his students began analyzing yo-yos. Unlike rotating kitchen appliances, such as an egg beater or salad spinner, that are too slow to separate blood, the yo-yo was fast. But it was difficult to master and not practical. Soon, the lab was full of all types of rotating and spinning toys, from tops to gyroscopes to whirligigs.

A postdoctoral student, Saad Bhamla, analyzed a whirligig in motion with a high-speed video. The analysis revealed that the whirligig could spin faster than any other toy they had used in experiments.

This sparked a “six-month marathon” of studying the physics of the whirligig and building a mathematical model to understand it. Three undergraduate students joined the team, and together, they discovered a way to increase the spinning speed to 125,000 revolutions per minute.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the fastest-spinning rotational motion powered by human hands,” Prakash said. The team is so confident in its finding that it has submitted an application to Guinness World Records.

Through trial and error, the team built the Paperfuge, a human-powered centrifuge made of two synthetic polymer paper discs, braided fishing line, wood or PVC pipe for handles, drinking straws sealed with epoxy and shatterproof plastic capillary tubes to hold the blood samples. It cost 20 cents to make. To ensure that the samples wouldn’t leak, the researchers used a variety of experiments to “rough up” the Paperfuge, including throwing it out in the street.

When testing the abilities of the Paperfuge, the team was able to show how it separated pure plasma from blood in 1½ minutes and isolate malaria parasites in 15 minutes.

The work was also inspired by another project that Prakash is known for: the Foldscope, an origami paper optical microscope that can be made for 50 cents with a sheet of paper and a simple lens.

Join the conversation

  • See the latest news and share your comments with CNN Health on Facebook and Twitter.

Prakash’s team was also able to make the Paperfuge out of other materials, like plastic and polymers or through a 3-D printing process. The members have just returned from field testing the Paperfuge in Madagascar, are planning a return trip to further test the tool and will be adding features to do single-step analysis.

“It’s crucial to think about democratizing scientific tools to bring them to people all around the world,” Prakash said. “All aspects of scientific and measurement tools should be re-examined to see how those fundamental principles can be re-engineered in new forms that are adaptable to a broader context beyond a well-funded lab in an academic settings. People have a lot of hunger for science, so it needs to be accessible.”