May 2, 2014 4:54 PM EDT

In science, serendipity is a familiar narrative: Devoted scientist searches doggedly for the solution to a problem, and, in the process, discovers something entirely different and entirely more useful.

This time, a team of Australian researchers accidentally invented a new kind of optical lens while attempting to synthesize polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS), a silicone polymer that’s used as a head lice treatment, an anti-foaming agent, a fluid-delivery device in microfluidics, and as an ingredient in some fast food (e.g., McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets). (Also, Silly Putty.) The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Steve Lee of the Australian National University, noticed that spilled drops of PDMS hardened overnight into lens-like shapes. Lee mentioned as much to a doctor friend, who informed him of medicine’s need for cheap, high-quality lenses, according to an article in, published by the Institute of Physics.

From there, Lee and his team developed a simple, novel method to shape PDMS into usable lenses, which they describe in Biomedical Optics Express. The resulting lenses are millimeters thick and magnify up to x160; to showcase their practicality, the researchers created a clip-on attachment that converts smartphones into dermatoscopes, devices employed in dermatology to diagnose skin cancers. The team built the attachment for around $2—dermatoscopes generally go for hundreds.

Worldwide, approximately one in five people own a smartphone; therefore, innovations that use them as a platform—like Dr. Lee’s lenses—can have a commensurately immense global impact, potentially saving lives in the process.

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