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Hacking Medical Technology With Legos and Sequins

At MIT's Little Devices Lab, tinkerers are envisioning the future of medical tech in the developing world.

Jul 31, 2014 9:00 PMNov 20, 2019 10:22 PM


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Photo Credits: Sam Ogden

Maverick MIT inventor Jose Gomez-Marquez has seen the future of medical tech in the developing world: It’s made of Lego bricks, cheap cell phones and dollar-store finds.

In a venerable brick building on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus, Gomez-Marquez is busy inventing unconventional, affordable medical technologies and replicating the functionality of hundred-thousand-dollar laboratory robotics with Lego Mindstorms kits and DIY Arduino circuits.

He calls it “supply chain arbitrage” — modifying existing materials to improve people’s lives today. He strongly believes that something as simple as modifying a pill bottle — and helping locals to do so for themselves — is a powerful way to change the ground rules of health care.

(Read our full feature story about Gomez-Marquez here.)

Photo Credits: Sam Ogden

Gomez-Marquez's lab is situated inside MIT's International Design Center, equipped with the latest generation of 3-D printers and laser cutters.

He moved into the lab, dubbed Little Devices, in 2012.

Photo Credits: Sam Ogden

In this clean, modern space, toys, most of them dismantled, are scattered everywhere, along with pregnancy tests (taken apart to see how the diagnostics are packaged), glue guns, soldering irons and a lab robot made largely of Legos.

Here, experimental molds are made using magnetic beads from a toy store.

Photo Credits: Sam Ogden

"He's somebody who really makes innovation accessible to people who wouldn't think they could be part of the process, particularly in low-resource settings," says Massachusetts General Hospital doctor Kristian Olson about Gomez-Marquez.

Photo Credits: Sam Ogden

This robot was designed and assembled in a couple of days by one of Gomez-Marquez’s students. A foot-tall Lego tower holds a syringe, controlled by some plastic gears, standing astride a homemade plotter powered by motors scavenged from old computer printers.

The contraption precisely deposits droplets of chemical reagent onto filter paper. The prepared paper can be used in the field to detect pathogens in blood, meaning that any clinic in the world can make quality paper diagnostics for diseases such as malaria and dengue fever with a few hundred dollars in parts.

The professional machine it replaces, called a liquid handler, costs $100,000. 

Photo Credits: Sam Ogden

Gomez-Marquez holds one of the mirror sections of the so-called Solarclave, a sun-heated portable autoclave that can sterilize surgical implements in village clinics.

A prototype of the device has been installed on the roof of the building that houses his lab.

Photo Credits: Sam Ogden

Here a simple TB compliance system, created as a collaboration between Gomez-Marquez and Kristian Olson. It consists of a personal low-power refrigerator to keep patients’ meds cool, along with a wireless module for connecting to cellular networks.

The refrigerator uses cell phone technology to alert medical workers when the patient fails to open it on schedule, a simple idea that hasn’t been so easy to implement. When they first went to Ethiopia with a prototype in 2011, nothing worked as planned. Arduino circuits burned out, the mobile network was incompatible with their cellular equipment, and even the red LED, which indicated that the unit was functional, had to be replaced because the color spooked local patients.

“You have to break it locally,” Gomez-Marquez reflects. “You only figure out what has to change by having things go wrong.”

Photo Credits: Sam Ogden

Gomez-Marquez calls the Little Devices Lab an “institutional hackerspace.” Having hacked his way into the MIT system, he now wants to share his resources.

Here, MIT student Madeline Aby works with Gomez-Marquez.

Photo Credits: Sam Ogden

Gomez-Marquez has come to believe that the greatest challenge, with the greatest potential impact, is to become a meta-designer.

“What if the whole point is not to be the best designers of these devices?” he muses. “What if we make a set of parts and see how people put them together?”

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