Low-Tech Medical Devices Save Lives

José Gómez-Márquez is inventing a better world

| January-February 2010

For a slide show of Gómez-Márquez’s inventions at utne.com/medicaltechnology.

José Gómez-Márquez’s laboratory at MIT seems to be part toy store, part machine shop, and part medical center. Plastic toys are scattered about, along with a disassembled drugstore pregnancy test, all manner of syringes, and a slew of fake body parts. Coffee filters have been transformed into paper-based diagnostics; a dime-store helicopter provides the design for a new asthma inhaler; even a toilet plunger has been put to use, rigged with tubes and glue to form a makeshift centrifuge.

“Centrifuges break down all the time,” says Gómez-Márquez, spinning the plunger’s wooden handle in his hands. That’s a problem for health care workers, because even simple medical tests rely on them to separate molecules in a blood or urine sample. In rich countries, the broken equipment is quickly repaired or replaced; in the poor countries where Gómez-Márquez works, finding replacement parts can be impossible, rendering the equipment useless. So he has tried to use readily available materials to make simple versions that are either easy to fiddle with, disposable, or unlikely to break in the first place. “This one could work even without power,” he says of the plunger-cum-centrifuge.

Gómez-Márquez, a native of Honduras, is a talented tinkerer: “My mother used to say my toys would last only a few days because I would take them apart, saying I had detected a defect,” he recalls. But he is also an inventor on a mission. “When you grow up in a developing country,” he says, “you get the sense that fancy technology is expensive to replace, so it often doesn’t get replaced.”

Some might say that Gómez-Márquez was born to improve medical technology. In 1976, when prenatal ultrasound was not available to his mother’s doctor in Honduras (it was just catching on in the United States), the physician mistakenly concluded that she was carrying twins and miscalculated how far along she was in her pregnancy. She was induced to give birth in what was actually her seventh month, and Gómez-Márquez—no twin in sight—was born with the numerous health concerns typical of an underweight and premature infant. He escaped long-term damage, but thanks to a childhood spent in and out of doctors’ offices, he developed a profound sense of how important health care is, how capricious access to it can be, and how much medical devices can do to improve it.

Gómez-Márquez left in the late 1990s to attend college in the United States. But his education was sidetracked by Hurricane Mitch, which devastated Honduras in 1998. With his parents in Tegucigalpa no longer able to help pay his tuition, he began working a variety of jobs to support himself, and eventually ended up at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.