A tricorder is used in the "Star Trek" episode "Plato's Stepchildren," which originally aired Nov. 22, 1968. / CBS via Getty Images
Decades after the medical crew aboard the USS Enterprise first used a "tricorder" device to scan patients for ailments and anomalies, real world science is working to catch up.
Today, 10 teams were named finalists in a $10 million-prize competition to create a lightweight, portable, wireless device that can diagnose and monitor a variety of medical conditions - from anemia to HIV to stroke. The announcement came during the opening ceremony of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society International Conference in Chicago.
Four of the finalists in the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize contest are from the USA; the others are from Europe, Asia and Canada. They represent non-profit groups, academia, start-ups, and established device manufacturers, says Erik Viirre, technical and medical director for the competition. "It's a really eclectic bunch."
More than 300 teams from around the world initially joined the Star Trek-inspired challenge, launched in January 2012, followed by 21 official team submissions.
Next comes further judging from a panel of experts, diagnostic evaluations and consumer testing before a first-, second- and third-place winner will be named in early 2016 - the 50th anniversary of the sci-fi TV series' debut. They will take away prizes worth $7 million, $2 million and $1 million, respectively.
Qualcomm Foundation, the charitable arm of mobile technology company Qualcomm, provided the prize money.
"The theme of Star Trek is really about what the future is going to be like and the kind of technology we're going to see there," Viirre says. The challenge of this competition, to create "a hand-held medical laboratory connected to computers," suggests what the next generation of mobile phones will be, he says.
By demonstrating the ability of sensor technologies as tools for health care providers to diagnose and treat patients, "this competition is really about leading a kind of revolution in consumer-driven health care," says Grant Campany, the competition's senior director.
Basil Harris, an engineer-turned emergency room physician in Paoli, Pa., and team co-leader for finalist group Final Frontier Medical Devices, says his patients increasingly want ownership of the kind of information this competition focuses on and that his team's DxtER device provides. "They want to be in charge. This will help educate people, put them in the driver seat for better healthcare."
The X Prize Foundation, a Los Angeles-based non-profit group, creates and manages high-profile challenges in five different prize groups (energy and environment; exploration; global development; learning; and life sciences) as a method to encourage "radical breakthroughs" that could benefit humanity. These projects "don't fit in traditional research funding systems," Viirre says.
Rules for the challenge require that the winning entry be able to continuously take a patient's vital signs (including blood pressure, respiratory rate and temperature), detect a prescribed set of 15 diseases and weigh no more than 5 pounds.
The multi-part, integrated Aezon prototype finalist, for example, utilizes a wearable vitals monitoring unit that continuously tracks the wearer's vital signs; a portable, lightweight lab box that reads disposable cartridges that test for the 15 specified diseases; and a smartphone app that directs users the user to the needed diagnostic tests based on their symptoms. All of the data are stored in a cloud where they can be accessed and analyzed using Aezon's Web application.
Aezon's team members are all students at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Team leader Tatiana Rypinski, 21, a senior biomedical engineering major, says the aim of the competition, "stimulating the development of technology so that it can be used to improve access to health care," offered "from a technical standpoint a type of challenge we never could have gotten anywhere else."
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will offer regulatory input to the competing teams to help them prepare for potential FDA review after the competition, Campany says.
Whereas Starfleet personnel were commonly outfitted with tricorder sensing devices to perform their duties, the X Prize competition is built on the premise that mere Earthbound citizens could benefit from access to such a tool, Viirre says.
You wouldn't have to be Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy to utilize the information, he adds.
The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize finalist teams are:
Headquarters: Baltimore, Md.
Innovation: Hardware prototypes have been developed for parts of the system that monitor vital signs and process fluid samples. A first version of the user interface smart phone application has also been created. The team continues to streamline user instruction and integrate additional diagnostics.
Headquarters: Toronto, Ontario
Innovation: The patent-pending Vitaliti necklace and cuff record streams of biological data, from which measurements of 11 physiological parameters (including blood pressure, pulse rate, respiration rate and heart arrhythmia detection) are taken. They use proprietary cloud-based algorithms. Results are available instantly on any tablet and are securely stored in the cloud for later retrieval, charting, trending and data mining.
Headquarters: Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India
Innovation: In the current phase of development, the technology offers integrated blood pressure, temperature and pulse oximeter (to measure oxygen saturation) in a single device, which is developed and awaits clinical trials. The next development phase will include integrating an ECG (electrocardiogram), a spirometer to test lung function, a blood-chemistry analyzer and glucose.
Headquarters: Cambridge, Mass.
Innovation: A universal blood sensor that integrates a broad set of medical diagnostics in a compact portable unit. Technologies used are based on DMI's rHEALTH Sensor, developed with support from NASA and the NIH.
Headquarters: Zhongli City, Taoyuan, Taiwan
Innovation: Five sub-systems - a Smart Vital-Sense-Patch and Smart Vital-Sense-Wrist module; Smart Blood Sense module; Smart Scope module; Smart Exhaler module; and Smart Urine Sense module - are designed to be used by consumers simply and intuitively. They are wirelessly connected to a smartphone, which runs a user-friendly app that carries out analysis to generate disease diagnosis.
Headquarters: Paoli, Pa.
Innovation: Basil Leaf Technologies' DxtER is capable of collecting and interpreting large amounts of data to diagnose specific medical conditions, provide users with real-time insight regarding their health and guide them to appropriate action. Developers, including an ER physician, deconstructed the diagnostic process for 22 medical conditions, then replicated them within the device's diagnostic engine (DxtER's "brain"). "It's user-friendly and has data that's robust enough to make a real clinical diagnosis," says team co-leader Basil Harris.
Headquarters: Ljubljana, Slovenia
Innovation: The system consists of a medical grade wristband and in-depth "modules" called "Shield," "To see," "To hear," "Pee" and "Blood." The wristband continuously monitors patient activity, and basic vital signs modules provide additional information needed for diagnoses. The wearable "Shield" module, for example, provides much more detailed vital signs data. Data come together in a smartphone app where, with the help of an extensive questionnaire, they are presented in colorful and clear results.
Headquarters: Moffet Field, Calif.
Team Leader: Walter De Brouwer
Innovation: Scanadu Scout, a Bluetooth-enabled device, scans vital signs, including temperature, respiratory rate, heart rate and blood pressure, and sends readings to your Smartphone. Included with the sensor are two disposable ScanaFlo urine analysis paddles for testing for pregnancy and health problems. The Scanadu Scout is "a medical instrument that can almost replace a clinic," company founder Walter De Brouwer told USA TODAY in 2013.
Innovation: SCANurse utilizes novel technological solutions to solve multiple sensing challenges, from breath analysis to movement and visual analysis. The technical approach adopted avoids the use of biological samples such as blood to maintain simplicity for the user. The interface is based on interactive engagement with the user to encourage long-term device/user interaction, together with a simple and easy-to-understand display of results.
Headquarters: Belfast, Northern Ireland
Innovation: A wearable, non-invasive cardio-event monitor that detects when arrhythmias occur and immediately transmits them over Wi-Fi to a secure server that can be reviewed and diagnosed by a physician. It detects respiration rate, temperature and motion, plus blood and urine for a variety of additional tests.
Read the original story: X Prize finalists design Trekkie-inspired health tools