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Turning toys into cheap, effective medical gear

MIT's Jose Gomez-Marquez stops by CNET to demonstrate how medical devices for the developing world can be made from ordinary items such as Lego pieces and bike pumps.

Jose Gomez-Marquez tests patient samples
At a TB hospital in Leon, Nicaragua, Jose Gomez-Marquez tests patient samples. Instead of using a pipette, he uses a drinking straw. Jose Gomez-Marquez

Jose Gomez-Marquez is like the MacGyver of medical devices, hacking toys and turning them into gadgets that can be used to diagnose conditions such as diabetes and dengue fever. By taking everyday items like Legos and bike pumps and turning them into replacements for expensive medical devices, he's attempting to save lives on the cheap.

"Most of the devices that get donated to developing countries fail because they were not designed to be used in these environments," Gomez-Marquez said during a visit to CNET this week to show some of his creations. "We need to make the Land Rover version of medical devices for these countries. Right now we are sending the Ferrari versions and they fail."

Gomez-Marquez is program director for MIT's Innovations in International Health initiative, which aims to teach medical professionals in the developing world how to hack ordinary objects to make their own medical devices. With a degree in mechanical engineering and a love of design, Gomez-Marquez wants to level the playing field in health care.

"One of the ways to empower better designs is by empowering users who are everyday users of the devices," he said. "So we made these kits to do that."

Now playing: Watch this: Turning toys into medical devices

In the video above, Gomez-Marquez shows off a number of innovations developed in his lab, including:

• A nebulizer powered by a bike pump. Normally, a nebulizer for asthmatic patients requires electricity to run. Instead of using an air compressor, this one uses a bike pump you step on for the same result.

• Printable diagnostics. Using a printer to cut designs onto paper, Gomez-Marquez is essentially taking tests normally done in the lab and bringing them to the ground. For instance, a person could provide a saliva or blood sample, drop it onto the paper-based device, and hold a mobile phone up to read the results instantly. When the data is uploaded to a central database, authorities can use the information to map the spread of infectious diseases like dengue fever in real time.

• Lab-on-a-chip devices made in the mold of Lego bricks. Doctors and nurses create their own tests, depending on their diagnostic needs.

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