Will a Star Trek-style Tricorder Soon Become a Medical Reality?

Will a Star Trek-style Tricorder Soon Become a Medical Reality?

The XPRIZE foundation is a nonprofit organization known for supporting scientific breakthroughs via financially stimulating competitions. In 2012, the Qualcomm XPRIZE announced a $10 million global competition to design a portable, wireless device that could diagnose various health conditions, in essence a Star Trek-style Tricorder. The proposed deadline for the Qualcomm XPRIZE of January 2016 has now been extended to 2017, attesting to the magnitude and complexity of this task.

The idea of a nonfictional Tricorder represents a radical innovation in health care, creating the possibility to monitor and diagnose health problems in a non-invasive and convenient way. The XPRIZE contest stipulates that the device needs to be lightweight, easy-to-use and able to accurately diagnose some 13 “core” conditions including diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and urinary tract infection (UTI). Moreover, teams must choose from three additional health conditions their device will be able to manage, such as HIV, osteoporosis and melanoma.  

Out of the 300 teams that initially registered, seven contestants remain in the race. They are all focusing on making final adjustments and refinements to their Tricorders in order to qualify for the tantalizing top prize of $7 million.

A Quest With an Open End

The final product is not expected to completely resemble the fictitious Tricorder from the starship Enterprise made famous in Star Trek.

There are needed attachments and sensors that are required for the handheld device to perform all of its desired functions. Nonetheless, the ultimate goal remains producing a single, affordable device people around the world will be able to use to diagnose themselves.

It has been suggested that different teams might take their perfected Tricorders into different directions and possibly later focus on just one condition.

For instance, one of the contestants that made it into the top 10, the Slovenian-based MESI Simplifying Diagnostics, is focusing on a screening tool for peripheral arterial disease (PAD). Their device, which is already being embraced by the UK’s National Health Service, measures not only ankle-brachial index (ABI), but it also acts as an accurate blood pressure measuring tool. The product features some impressive technical specifications and is capable of accurately diagnosing PAD in only three minutes. In the traditional method, using a Doppler ultrasound, the test takes about 30 minutes and requires more complicated and cumbersome technology. MESI’s example also demonstrates that these types of devices can pass regulatory approval and be deemed safe for use with patients.

From Homemade Technology to Space Missions

Companies and teams contributing to the XPRIZE are not the only ones with a desire to create an accessible Tricorder every household can use. There are other ongoing projects attempting to contribute to the progress of democratizing health care through innovative health technology too.

For instance, the company Tytocare’s primary focus is a digital health device called the Tyto that allows the common user the ability to perform a traditional physical exam in the convenience of their own home. The Tyto is currently not available in the United States, but the device is in the regulatory process with the FDA and hopes to enter United States market soon.

NASA scientists are also working on a handheld diagnostic device that could monitor astronauts’ health as they embark on prolonged space missions. NASA wanted a device that could count an astronauts’ red and white blood cells as well as perform other blood diagnostics while in space. The DNA Medical Institute (DMI) was able to fill the requirements. DMI, which is also competing in the XPRIZE, designed a device called rHEALTH that can obtain diagnostic information from a single drop of blood even while a person is in reduced-gravity. Furthermore, the device’s sensors are reusable, which makes it more appropriate and efficient for space missions that span several months.

The gamut of digital health sensors now available for a smartphone almost puts this common device in Tricorder territory. It is plausible that in the foreseeable future we will have a commercially available device that is a suitable replacement for the rudimentary annual physical, a common medical checkup once only available by traveling to your primary care provider.

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