Welcome to the Spirit of Trek, a weekly column where we identify and celebrate Gene Roddenberry’s vision by discovering how its messages have started to permeate throughout humanity’s collective consciousness by looking for it on the Internet and within popular culture. After a short break for the holiday season, we have returned with a new article. This week we’ll be examining the efforts currently under way to make Star Trek’s medical tricorders a reality.
It was a year ago the X Prize Foundation officially announced its Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize. It’s a global competition with a $10 million prize that seeks the development of a small (no more than five pounds), user friendly device capable of diagnosing fifteen diseases as well as measuring several key health metrics, including: blood pressure, respiratory rate, temperature and others without the need for evasive laboratory tests. The information this device collects will be stored electronically, and may be shared over the Internet with medical professionals. In other words, they are looking for Star Trek’s medical tricorder.
Although the competition’s rules don’t require the integration of smart phones into the device, many of the competition’s early participants have used them as part of their designs. Who knows? The tricorder of tomorrow may already be in your pocket. There already are a few medical add-ons being developed for smartphones. AliveCor’s iPhone ECG is an iPhone case with a pair of electrodes that are able to perform an electrocardiogram (ECG). MobiSante has developed an ultrasound system with a hand-held ultrasonic probe that generates an image on the phone’s display at a fraction of the price of a conventional ultrasound machine. iBGStar has an attachment for iPhones that will measure glucose levels in blood using a technology called WaveSense. Finally, CellScope has developed a microscope for smart phones with different resolutions based on specific attachments and needs that are able to analyze pathogens such as tuberculosis and malaria from slides or that can be used as an octoscope to look into people’s ears to monitor ear infections. However, these attachments are single purpose devices and are not eligible for the competition.
A few weeks ago, Scanadu introduced the SCOUT. The scout is a small handheld device that takes your vitals by simply holding it to your temple for ten seconds. It will, then, send your temperature, blood oxygenation, pulse transit time, electrical heart activity, heart rate, and heart rate variability to an app on your Android or iPhone, where it can be displayed or stored to track long term health status. With smart phone technology at the heart of their offerings, Scanadu will soon be offering ScanaFlo and ScanaFlu in the near future as well. ScanaFlo will feature a disposable component that will be used for urine analysis to determine pregnancy complications, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, kidney failure, and urinary tract infections. ScanaFlu will analyze your saliva for Strep A, Influenza A and B, Adenovirus, and RSV. Both will utilize the phone’s camera to read the data from the disposable component. All three are due to be released by the end of the year.
Another entry into the competition is SenStore, which is taking the medical tricorder idea in a different direction. SenStore is currently developing an open-source platform to take advantage of new medical sensors and algorithms. Essentially, they are developing an operating system of sorts that can collect sensor data, analyze it, and provide information in an easily understandable manner. The company began their work by developing Live Home Free, a wearable garment like device for elderly people that can detect abrupt changes in movement and posture (specifically, a fall) and signal their families or primary care givers. With their first devices’ success, they sought to expand it into a tricorder capable of monitoring the entire body.
The advantage that SenStore offers over the Scanadu pertains to its potential customizability. For instance, a medical device built on the SenStore platform could easily interface with a sensor designed to check for malaria, tuberculosis, syphilis, or HIV. The sensors could be built into the device creating multiple versions of tricorders designed for specific needs, or they can be attachments of sort that can be easily swapped in and out on the fly to allow a single device to any number of tasks. They don’t seek to create an all-in-one device, but instead, a platform tailor made for the individual based on their needs.
Another way SenStore differs from Scanadu pertains to how hands on the patient will be involved in the process. Scanadu takes a hands-off approach, simply scanning and performing a few routine measurements, while the SenStore approach may require patient cooperation in taking blood samples. With the right sensors and patient interaction, it could be used to measure cardiac function to detect signs of a heart attack or strokes.
SenStore has developed an app, called the Virtual Nurse for the Android that will probably be the user interface of their tricorder. In its current form the Virtual Nurse, named Alice, is able to respond to voice commands as it check symptoms against Harvard Medical School’s database. It asks questions to help users diagnose medical issues in order to determine if they need to see a doctor, should rush to the Emergency room, or relax. It is able to make these recommendations through its 136 decision guides that cover 98% of the reasons why people need to seek medical attention.
There are many other entries for the Tricorder X Prize besides the two we’ve discussed so far. Virtual Scanning is able to diagnose medical conditions ranging from psychological to physiological, including dyslexia, migraine, chronic fatigue syndrome and depression to name a few. Through chromotherapy and computational neuroscience, Virtual Scanning is able to assess the health of 30 organs based on the specific effects organ function has on color cognition and color stimulation. I don’t claim to understand how this works, but it is based on principles discovered by Professor Igor Grakov of the University of Krasnoyarsk in Russia. Finally, there’s Nanobiosym. They’re approach at a tricorder is involves taking a blood sample and performing a genetic analysis on it. They are using their Gene-RADAR technology to empower people with rapid, accurate, and portable diagnostic information about their own health.
Although the first round of the competition hasn’t reached its half-way point yet, there has been quite of bit of news pertaining to some of the work its entrants have already achieved. Most of the entrants into the Qualcomm X Prize have used smart phones as the core of their respective projects which leads me to believe that the medical tricorder of tomorrow can already be found in our pockets.
The time has come to wrap up this week’s column. Thank you for joining me on this journey to discover how the Spirit of Trek has started to permeate throughout our culture with the hope that one day, Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity’s future will become a reality. If you come across something that you believe embodies the Spirit of Trek on the Internet or within popular culture, please do not hesitate to share it with me. I may discuss it in a future article. Live long and prosper.
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