08/10/2010 05:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Cheap Microscopes Could Help Developing Nations Improve Health Care

One of the major problems with diseases in developing nations isn't just the expense of treatment -- sometimes even settling on an accurate diagnosis can be the greatest obstacle in ensuring the health of a vulnerable population.

What's the problem? Equipment is very expensive. A typical microscope used by pathologists costs about $2,000, and as ars technica points out, transporting several of these into Uganda isn't the most effective way to diagnose tuberculosis.

A new device may improve the process -- Rice University researchers are developing a florescent microscope that could be sold by a manufacturer for around $300. The process works as follows:

A fluorescent microscope uses fluorescent dyes to increase the contrast of the sample, allowing pathologists to identify particular objects, such as the TB bacillus, with less ambiguity. The idea is relatively simple: a dye is added to the sample, and it adheres preferentially to certain molecular structures. The dye absorbs light at a short wavelength -- blue light, for instance -- and re-emits the energy at a longer wavelength, a process called fluorescence. So, the microscope filters out the illuminating light, leaving only the fluorescence that comes from the parts of the sample that the dye stuck to.

Cheap microscopes means more per facility, which leads to faster diagnoses and, ultimately, better treatment.