Making Modern Medicine Common Medicine with Paper

Dec 09, 2014

 By TJ Struhs
 Manager, State Government Affairs

 When we think of modern medicine, we think of advanced hospitals
 with clean rooms and powerful machines. Doctors carry iPads to
 work on digital medical charts, view test results, and prescribe the
 latest wonder drug to patients. In some instances, entire
 examinations are conducted via video conferencing and surgeons perform procedures remotely using robotic arms controlled on distant continents.

At first glance, paper in this field seems out of place. However, this simply could not be further from the truth. 

Paper’s renewability and recyclability has made it one of the most widely recognized and available commodities around the world. Its versatility sees it used in everything from thank-you notes to advanced building materials and innovative packaging, and everything in between. But how exactly is it making modern medicine more accessible?

Paper Microscopes

The Foldscope is a paper microscope that users can print and build themselves. Using a high quality drop of glue as the lens and printed guidelines to show the user where to fold the paper and align key components, the technology allows nearly universal access to a powerful medical device. 

The technology is brilliantly simple, but the real miracle is the cost. Here’s a breakdown from NPR’s recent article:

  • Sheet of paper: 6 cents
  • Lens: between 17-56 cents (depending on type of lens and microscope)
  • LED light: 21 cents
  • Battery: 6 cents
  • On-off switch: 5 cents

The result? A microscope that is not only available anywhere in the world, but can be made for less than $1.

Paper Cancer Detectors

Jack Andraka, a 15 year-old inventor, used cheap filter paper strips, carbon nanotubes and antibodies sensitive to mesothelin (a prevalent protein in pancreatic cancer patients) to create a first of its kind cancer detector. He presented his invention at a TED Talk in February 2013.

The simple paper device was found to be 100 percent accurate in preliminary tests. With over 85 percent of pancreatic cancers diagnosed when people have a two percent chance of survival, Jack’s paper innovation is expected to have an enormous impact. This impact is even larger when you consider that its simplicity means it can be deployed anywhere in the world.   

Epidemic Prevention using Paper

The recent Ebola outbreak proved that both time and money are of the essence during medical emergencies. Once again, paper offered a mass-produced, affordable alternative (roughly $20 in materials) to complicated genetic testing. Researchers have created a powder of biological ingredients that is printed on paper as an array of dots. Within half an hour of exposure to bodily fluids, the paper test strip reveals varying antibiotic resistance genes present.  With the progress of this technique updated as recently as this October, the access to and versatility of paper provides a simple, quick, and accurate testing procedure that is accessible around the globe for a fraction of the cost.

Using a renewable resource is a highly efficient process, and the paper industry has been around for over 100 years. So while the industry’s next 100 years are shaping up to be radically different than the last, the renewability, recyclability, and versatility of the products the industry makes all but guarantees that paper will have a role.

Modern medicine is doing well to incorporate both old and new techniques, and as other industries look to confront their own environmental and economic challenges, the paper industry may play a bigger role than most people think in helping them achieve their goals.