Salad spinning toward global health

The World

This story was originally covered by PRI's "The World." For more, listen to the audio.

Millions of people around the world suffer from anemia, a potentially life-threatening disease caused when the body doesn't produce enough red blood cells. To diagnose anemia, doctors use centrifuges that separate blood, allowing them to test and count the red blood cells.

In much of the world, centrifuges are logistically impossible. The machines are expensive and electricity can be hard to come by.

Rice Professor Rebecca Richards-Kortum wanted to change that. She asked her undergraduate students to brainstorm a way to use centrifuges cheaply and without electricity. The students thought about bicycles and egg beaters, but eventually the inspiration came from the salad spinner, as seen on TV.

For about $35, the students built a machine that can spin up to 30 samples of blood — a vast improvement from the more expensive versions that can hold only four samples. To use it, someone has to pump the machine manually for about 10 minutes.

The idea was conceived as a part of Rice University's Rice 360 program that's working with students and mentors to design new technologies that improve global health. Lauren Vestewig, the group's executive director, said that consciousness of global health issues is growing among the students she's interacted with at Rice. "Part of it is that it's a lot easier to be connected," Vestewig told Students are better able to see the health problems that are happening aroudn the world, and Vestewig believes they're becoming increasingly more likely to want to do something about it.

The classes on global health technologies now include about 10 percent of the undergraduate students at Rice. According to Vestewig, "it's a good trend."

The students involved in the salad spinner project are now taking their invention to Ecuador and Swaziland to test the centrifuges in real-life conditions.

"Maybe just getting it there on the plane will be a good indication of how well it will hold up," one of the students, Lauren Theis, told PRI's "The World." "It should hold up, but we’re going to find out."

When asked about the suprising popularity of the salad spinner idea, Vesterweig responded, "Everybody can relate to a salad spinner."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. 

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