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A 3D-printed, solar-powered lab-in-a-box could change how we combat disease outbreaks

FieldLab is a 3D-printed, solar-powered medical diagnostics lab-in-a-box
Reuters/Joe Penney
It’s taken deadly outbreaks to make detection simpler.
  • Lynsey Chutel
By Lynsey Chutel


Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The desperate need for mobile labs in Africa was made clear during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Testing for Ebola could take up to five days, as symptoms that initially presented as flu or malaria quickly turned deadly. Mobile labs sped the diagnostics process up to mere hours, but were only in place thanks to donations from foreign governments or agencies.

Up until now, mobile labs have come in the form of container-based or truck mounted labs, which are difficult to deploy to areas where roads are poor, while powering these containers requires fuel or a generator. During the Ebola outbreak, innovations were rapid, with more compact mobile labs being developed to address Ebola’s hyper-contagiousness.

Now, a combination of simple carpentry, 3D-printing and sheer innovation has led to a breakthrough in medical testing in remote areas across the continent.

FieldLab is a solar-powered lab-in-a-box created by two grad students at Rhodes University in South Africa. The FieldLab can be carried like a briefcase and is designed specifically to address the constraints facing medical diagnostics in Africa: affordability, mobility and robustness.

The FieldLab’s simplicity belies its ability to handle molecular biology in harsh conditions. The portable lab’s 3D printed equipment is able to test for viruses and bacteria, testing samples in much the same way as a laboratory in a building. The carry-on lab was specifically designed for medical workers travelling to remote or conflict ridden areas.

A simple solution.

The FieldLab is able to carry out DNA analysis, centrifugation (in which fluids in the sample are separated) and offer a visual analysis of the result. The lab is modular, and can accommodate additional parts like a microscope and a thermocycler (which amplifies DNA segments).

The kit will cost at most 20,000 rand (less than $1,500), which is about a tenth of the cost of lab-based equipment, according to the creators. Additional modifications or attachments will cost about 10,000 rand ($730) more.

Creators Lucas Lotter and Charles Faul, both masters students at Rhodes University, have already raised one million rand ($73,000) through support from the South African government, Unicef and others. The funding will ensure that the FieldLab is commercially available in 2018.

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