We all know salad is good for you, but did you ever think a salad spinner could save a life?

Two students from Rice University in Houston, Texas did.

It all began when undergraduates Lila Kerr and Lauren Theis were presented with an assignment in their Introduction to Bioengineering and World Health class. As Theis explains, "We were essentially told we need to find a way to diagnose anemia without power, without it being very costly and with a portable device."

Their solution? The team modified a basic, run-of-the-mill salad spinner into an easy-to-use and easy-to-transport centrifuge to separate blood and allow for the quick diagnosis of anemia, all without the use of electricity. The device costs about $30, can process 30 individual 15 microliter blood samples at a time, and can separate blood into its component red cells and plasma in about 20 minutes.  

In other words, it could seriously save lives in communities where lack of electricity means that blood samples taken in the field must be sent to a distant laboratory while patients are left waiting for results.

In rural, underserved and impoverished parts of the world, a positive diagnosis for anemia is a critically important clue when looking for other health problems such as malnutrition or serious chronic infectious diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS — conditions that could be fatal in the days it takes to get blood test results.

Kerr and Theis will take their "Sally Centrifuge" on the road this summer for a series of field tests in places that will benefit from low-tech solutions. As part of Rice University's Beyond Traditional Borders program, the pair will travel with their device to Ecuador, Swaziland and Malawi, where rural clinics will provide real-world testing of the surprising diagnostic tool.

College students spin new idea for health care
Rice University students come up with ingenious and inexpensive health care tool for communities without power.