Fighting Dengue Fever With Legos

By Cristina Quinn

Jan. 24, 2012


Take a fruit picker and combine it with a Coke bottle and you have... a gripper for a prosthetic arm. (Cristina Quinn/WGBH)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sometimes, to talk about the future, we need to visit the past. Remember "MacGyver," the popular TV show of the '80s? To escape deadly situations, the secret agent combined his expertise in physics and chemistry with ordinary household objects.

Today, at MIT, they’re not using MacGyver’s paper clips and duct tape to get out of risky jams. But they are turning to Legos and bike pumps to help solve problems in the developing world such as dengue fever and asthma.

The lab of the Little Devices Group on the MIT Campus resembles the garage of a hacker. At first glance, it seems pretty ordinary: tools, pipefittings, test tubes and wood spread out across the room. Upon further inspection, you see Popsicle sticks, dissected toy helicopters and boxes of Legos.  But make no mistake: the work done here is far from child’s play.

Jose Gomez-Marquez is a medical device designer at Little Devices. In a tour through the space, he points out the sections of the lab.

“Generally our lab is divided between dry and wet, mechanical and electrical with a little bit of everything in between sometime. In the mechanical side of the lab, what we have here are a lot of toys. We use a lot of toys because those are durable parts.” Gomez says.

A man, a plan, a bike pump nebulizer, Nicaragua

And where do they find those toys? Rummaging through the aisles of toy stores and dollar stores is a big part of what the Little Devices Group does, which is making MEDIKits. These kits come with devices and are designed to save lives by doing what we take for granted: check vital signs, administer drugs and perform diagnostics. For a nurse in Nicaragua, these kits can improve the quality of care she gives—and save someone a long trip to a hospital just for a quick asthma treatment.

Gomez-Marquez plugs in a compressor attached to a nebulizer. “The nebulizer works by having a compressor you connect to a wall, and all it does is blow air. So we started playing with these instead," he explains.

He then takes out a bicycle pump the team bought for $5 in a hardware store in Nicaragua. When you think about it, it does the same job as a nebulizer—blowing air—but it's powered by a human, not electricity.

The team tore out the part that connects to the bike tire valve. Add a zip tie to the tubing… and the end result is a bike pump nebulizer that is being used in remote areas of Nicaragua, where electricity can be scarce.

The kit in the field

It seems easy in an MIT lab, but what happens when a kit of tubes and doodads arrive in a poor village?

“We basically try to give them the parts in a way that’s smart— that have a language of design [so] they know how to put them together," Gomez-Marquez says. "By language of design, we mean, you never have to teach a kid how to use Legos. They just have an intrinsic snap-on quality about them. And if they want to make a car, there is just some underlying logic that allows them to make a car. We think the same should be true with a medical device.”

The Little Devices Group wants to democratize the way people fabricate medical devices and break down any class barriers between the medical communities of the developing and developed worlds. Sending simple tools allows users to develop their own prototypes to create solutions for the problems they see on a daily basis.

“It’s much more different to come up with a device here than to come up with a device out there,” Gomez-Marquez explains.

A step backward?

Some critics of the MEDIKit say the emphasis on empowering those in the developing world should be on training, not making simple devices out of toys and plumbing hardware.

“They don’t so much need instruments and tools and devices as someone who knows how to fix them and keep them working,” says Irving Bigio, a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering at Boston University.

While Bigio’s research also focuses on creating devices for poor countries, he says training and troubleshooting are the key.

For a nebulizer, he thinks the best approach is to teach people "how to simply repair it and keep it working. If nothing else, they’ll be ready to make use of the piles and crate loads of equipment that various donor organizations dump on them and they don’t know how to use."

In the meantime, the team at the Little Devices Group continues to go toy shopping. But they’re also developing more MacGyver-type fixes to problems—like a surgical tool sterilization kit using pocket-sized mirrors and a pressure cooker, or handing out free cellphone minutes as an incentive to take your medicine.

“A lot of people are going blue in the face trying to yell at us because we’re being cowboy inventors," Gomez-Marquez says. "But I think for every good idea, you’re going to get a handful of people that do that, and that means that you’re doing a good job."

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