The Tricorder XPRIZE

In April 2017, the winners of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE were announced: out of more than 300 teams, Final Frontier Medical Devices and Dynamical Biomarkers Group were the two whose devices got us closest to where no one has gone before. The contest was inspired by the medical “tricorder” from the original Star Trek series, a handheld device that could check vitals and diagnose a host of diseases by simply being swept in front of the patient. This vision of the future  — with no invasive tests and fast, accurate results — has now ushered in actual technological advances outside the realm of science fiction.

The work of both prizewinning teams focused on integrating multiple technologies into a single device. According to the judges, both devices almost met the contest benchmarks for accurately diagnosing 13 different diseases including anemia, diabetes, lung disease, pneumonia, and urinary tract infections. In fact, these two winners come closest to combining the many functionalities of the original tricorder featured in a single, handheld diagnostic system.

Final Frontier Medical Devices and Basil Leaf Technologies won first prize with their DxtER device. This is actually an AI-equipped iPad that uses non-invasive sensors to collect data about body chemistry, biological functions, and vital signs. The second place prize went to Dynamical Biomarkers Group, who produced three wireless handheld test modules: the Smart Blood-Urine Test Kit, the Smart Vital-Sense Monitor, and the Smart Scope Module. These modules connect to a smartphone and analyze blood, urine, skin appearance, and vital signs.

Image Credit: Bobbie Johnson/WikiCommons

Instant Handheld Diagnostics

So, are we gaining on the real tricorder? Definitely — but there are still some hurdles we need to clear. For example, while devices for monitoring vital signs are very advanced, processing the data they collect requires software, and this is where the single handheld device has a problem. Similarly, imaging devices are rapidly improving —but again, to provide accurate assessments of images you need pattern recognition software.

Advances in lab-on-a-chip technologies have already simplified remote diagnostics and made them less invasive. Current research is focusing on using microfluidics to analyze the tiniest amounts of interstitial fluid and sweat — thus eliminating the need for painful, inconvenient, and occasionally dangerous blood draws for sampling biological fluids. Meanwhile, scientists have created a portable DNA sequencer, which could help diagnose genetic disorders, and a “cancer detector” that uses microwaves to work without even touching the skin. However, no one has found a way to make this technology completely handheld and integrated with all of the other kinds of technologies that would be needed to create a true tricorder.

A real tricorder breakthrough would mean diagnostic ability in the field, giving doctors working in underserved areas of the world a powerful new weapon against disease and other public health issues. It would also be a major breakthrough for military personnel and first responders. So while the actual device isn't in hand right now, we have all the puzzle pieces we need to make it a reality — we just need to fit them all together. When we do, accurate and potentially lifesaving medical diagnoses will be a few seconds away.

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