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San Diego Union Tribune: Building the real life Tricorder

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San Diego Union Tribune: Building the real life Tricorder

Basil Harris

Building the real life Tricorder

10 finalists enter last leg of $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize contest

By Mike Freeman Oct. 3, 2014

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Tatiana Rypinski didn’t know much about “Star Trek” when she organized a team of about 20 undergraduate students at Johns Hopkins University to enter the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize competition.

Her team went to a recent “Star Trek” movie to get a better feel for what the Tricorder was all about.

Basil Harris grew up watching “Star Trek” on TV. An emergency room physician in Pennsylvania, Harris got an advanced degree in engineering before switching to medicine. One of his brothers did the same thing.

Harris cajoled his brother and other siblings — who have families and full-time jobs — to enter the Tricorder contest. It gave them a rare opportunity to combine their engineering and medical backgrounds. They named their team Final Frontier Medical Devices.

“We didn’t get involved right way, but I was intrigued by a news story,” he said. “I started looking at the problem and thought, this is doable. We can build it.”

Rypinski and Harris came to San Diego late last month — along with representatives of eight other XPrize finalists — to get instructions on the last leg of the daunting Tricorder competition.

By April, each team must deliver 30 prototypes of their portable wireless Tricorder solutions that are capable of diagnosing 15 diseases and monitoring five vital signs.

Founded in 1995, the XPrize Foundation organizes competitions to advance innovation. In 2004, Burt Rutan — backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen — won the $10 million Ansari XPrize by producing a private suborbital spacecraft.

In 2010, three teams split a $10 million Progressive Insurance XPrize for building vehicles that get more than 100 miles per gallon. Google is sponsoring an ongoing $30 million contest to develop a lunar rover robot and fly it to the moon.

Officially launched in January 2012, the Tricorder XPrize aims to push wireless medical technology into the mainstream. San Diego-based Qualcomm pledged the prize money. The company has long viewed mobile technology as key to cutting health care costs and improving results.

San Diego will be the epicenter of the final phase of the contest. The XPrize Foundation is close to wrapping up an agreement with UC San Diego Health System to host the consumer testing of the Tricorder prototypes.

Next summer, the XPrize Foundation will work with UCSD to find nearly 500 consumer volunteers in San Diego with the health conditions that the Tricorders are trying to detect — ranging from diabetes to anemia to pneumonia to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“This is a very complex process because it is almost like running 15 clinical trials,” said Grant Campany, senior director of the Tricorder XPrize.

Consumers with the specific conditions will be recruited. The Tricorders will be provided to them and they will undergo training on how to use them.

“They will take the Tricorders home and for a period of 72 hours, they will be using the Tricorders,” said Campany.

Forty-five percent of the judging criteria will be based on how easy the Tricorders are to use for real patients. They also will be judged on accuracy, the ability to detect all of the diseases, connectivity and other technical criteria.

The XPrize Foundation will be working with UC San Diego to build the information technology backbone necessary for the Tricorders to send data wirelessly to a secure data center, said Campany.

XPrize organizers brought in U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulators to San Diego to meet the finalists. It is working with angel investors to help fund prototype development for the teams.

“The benefit of this to UCSD, being one of the first medical institutions in the country to actually put this type of infrastructure in place, (it) now is first in line and has a relationship with the FDA as a test center,” said Campany.

In August, a panel of XPrize judges trimmed 21 entrants to 10 finalists based on the innovation of their proposals. Once the finalists deliver their 30 prototypes to judges, they are done with development. The devices will be evaluated over the remainder of 2015, with the winner slated to be named in early 2016.

Don’t expect these Tricorders to look like the fictional “Star Trek” version. Rypinski, who leads Team Aezon from Johns Hopkins, said the competition’s requirement of continuous vital signs monitoring makes a one-box design impractical.

Team Aezon uses three parts — a smartphone app, a lightweight, wearable vital signs monitor and a stand-alone lab box, which does the disease detection.

During her freshman year, Rypinski, a soft-spoken biomedical engineering major, read about the contest in a technology magazine. She sent out a campuswide email asking students if they wanted to create a team.

The response was enthusiastic, with the initial meeting of interested students filling a lecture hall. Over the past two-plus years, Team Aezon has shrunk to about 20 core members. They include San Diegan Neil Rens, now a junior at Johns Hopkins. He is working on the team’s lab box.

“The XPrize likens this competition to a decathlon,” said Rens. “You can be good at nine out of 10 things. But if you can’t do that 10th thing, you can’t win."

Team Aezon’s system can do it all, said Rens. “We don’t have an amazing solution for every single piece, but we do have a solution. We have something that works for each part of the competition.”

Rypinski, now a senior, said Team Aezon has been using 3-D printers and other rapid prototype equipment at the university’s Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design. The team has faculty mentors, and it has received a small amount of funding from the university’s alumni association and the Baltimore-area Abell Foundation.

Team Aezon is still tinkering, trying to deliver the best system. It’s experimenting with additional diagnostics technology, and Rypinski is paying particular attention to ease of use.

“It’s one thing to develop a prototype that works on the (lab) bench,” she said. “It’s another thing for me to be able to hand that prototype to someone who has never worked with it before and for them to be able to use it.”

In this competition, Team Aezon stands out because it’s made up of students. Other finalist teams are linked to either established or startup medical device companies, or are led by medical doctors and scientists.

Asked to assess her team’s chances, Rypinski is resolute, yet also philosophical.

“The goal of the competition doesn’t end with the competition,” she said. “Improving access to care, stimulating the development of this technology — even the winner of this competition, their technology isn’t going to be ready to deliver that future. So in that sense, the race is still on to create this technology that is really going to change health care and change society.”

Like Rypinski, Basil Harris put out a call for volunteers to enter the competition after reading about it. But his messages went to his two brothers — Gus and George — and his sister, Julia.

The family is steeped in health care and technology. Julia Harris works in health policy. George Harris is a network engineer. Basil Harris and Gus Harris are both doctors. But before they switched to medicine, they studied mechanical and electrical engineering in college. Today, Basil Harris is an emergency room doctor. Gus Harris works in urology and is a surgeon.

“When he brought this project up, I was resistant,” said Gus Harris. “Work was really busy. When would I find time for this? But I came around. If this thing really existed, it would make my life a lot easier.”

Working at night and on weekends, the Harris siblings say they attacked the problem from a different angle than other teams, which focused on the technology first.

Team Final Frontier looked at what information they would need to diagnose a patient with pneumonia, anemia or the other required diseases. Then they sought out specific technology that could deliver that information.

“We have the clinical expertise. We know how to make diagnoses. So that is where we started,” said Basil Harris. “One of our philosophies going through this is it’s not about big data, but about smart data.”

Team Final Frontier has three members outside of the Harris family. Basil Harris didn’t want to give away too much about their technology. But he did say patients interact with the system through a tablet. It involves patches and some fluid testing but not blood samples.

“What is really cool is our solution is completely noninvasive,” he said. “We are not pinching you in any way. We are trying to gather a lot of information in novel ways in the sensors that we are applying to the skin. We are using different wavelengths of light to gather information.”

Perhaps the biggest hurdle for the team has been integrating all this technology into a package small enough for patients to carry home, said George Harris.

“This is more capable than the Tricorder that was in Dr. McCoy’s hands, because with that one, McCoy was interpreting the data and figuring out what the diagnosis was,” George Harris said. “This one has to do all that itself.”

Team Final Frontier has been funded by its members to date. As for its chances to win, Basil Harris isn’t worried about that.

“We’ve already won,” he said. “We were in our rut. Gus was behind the screen doing his robotic surgery. I was entrenched in the ER. Just to be involved in this and contribute to the first Tricorder, whether our solution wins the top prize or not, it is phenomenal.”

© Copyright 2014 The San Diego Union-Tribune, LLC. An MLIM LLC Company. All rights reserved.

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