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New Scientist: $10 million tricorder X Prize unveils 10 finalists

Basil Harris

$10 million tricorder X Prize unveils 10 finalists

The quest to make a real-life version of Star Trek's pocket doctor could pay off, with gadgets including tiny blood tests and a digital consultant

IS THERE a doctor in the house? In a few years there could be one in your pocket.

The X Prize Foundation last week announced 10 finalists in its $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize competition to create a mobile consumer device that can diagnose 16 medical conditions, from anaemia to urinary tract infection, and monitor five vital signs, including blood pressure and respiratory rate.

Launched in 2012, the prize has encouraged teams around the world to develop high-tech home-diagnosis kits inspired by Star Trek's tricorder, a handheld device that gives a diagnosis when simply waved over a person's body. The rules state that the finalists will have to demonstrate their devices on humans next year. Three winners are due to be announced in 2016, with prizes of $1m, $2m and $7m. So are these latest bits of sci-fi tech, such as that produced by Silicon Valley-based firm Scanadu (pictured), poised to leap into the real world? And what techniques will they use?

"Just pointing a device at somebody's head is unlikely to work," says James McLaughlin at the University of Ulster in Newtownabbey, UK, who leads a finalist team called Zensor. Other than temperature and some skin conditions, not much can be picked up without physical contact, he says.

So most teams have developed systems consisting of wearable patches, handheld sensors and laptop-sized diagnostic labs. Most have also based their designs on existing technology. The challenge has been to integrate a hotchpotch of devices into a usable whole, says Eugene Chan of the DNA Medicine Institute (DMI) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, another shortlisted team.

Anil Vaidya of London-based finalists SCANurse agrees. The trick is putting the ability to diagnose a wide range of conditions into a single package, he says. With consumers in mind, SCANurse has opted for a minimally invasive approach. Their system uses computer-vision techniques to analyse images taken with a camera. The idea is to make observations of the inside of the ears or throat, say – much as a human doctor would – and then feed the images to diagnostic software that looks for telltale signs of disease. "We don't believe that a person on the street will be comfortable taking blood," he says, but concedes that without blood it will be tough to diagnose conditions such as hepatitis A, a competition requirement.

Other teams are betting consumers won't be too squeamish. "You need to test both blood and urine because these are key markers," says McLaughlin. Zensor's system includes a miniature microspectroscopy lab that uses microfluidics to analyse blood samples and diagnose a range of conditions. The aim is to come up with something on a par with hospital-lab diagnostics, he adds.

Combining the results of such tests with readings from wearable sensors will provide a lot of raw data that can be sent to a doctor. But McLaughlin stresses the need for a simple traffic-light-based system for consumer users. Zensor filters data through a smartphone app that tells you when you need to seek medical advice. The team hopes its system will mainly provide reassurance. "It will stop people having to go to the doctor all the time," says McLaughlin.

Chan's team has taken the miniaturised lab concept to its extreme. By shrinking conventional test strips down to "nano strips", their device performs all the tests it needs to using a single drop of blood. Chan wants to extend this approach beyond the 16 conditions required by the X Prize Foundation. "The more tests you can do on a single drop of blood, the better," he says.

Such efficiency could be useful in deep space. DMI has already teamed up with NASA to tailor their device for astronauts on long trips to asteroids or Mars. With no medical professional on-board, self-diagnosis becomes really important, says Chan. DMI has recently shown that their tiny blood-testing lab also works in zero gravity.

Ultimately, though, the success of these "pocket doctors" may depend on how comfortable people are with using them. Another shortlisted team, Final Frontier Medical Devices, based in Paoli, Pennsylvania, will soon find out how actual patients feel about this next-generation medical tech. Thanks to his day job as an emergency-room doctor, co-leader Basil Harris is giving his team a head start with clinical trials.

Harris's team has centred its approach on an age-old technique: asking questions. A simple interview can be the best way to diagnose something like a stroke – another of the competition's required conditions. "If someone has a very large stroke, they don't need this device to figure that out," says Harris. "But subtle ones are hard to diagnose." For example, the person's only symptom might be slight trouble seeing out of one eye.

Harris thinks that by asking lots of on-screen questions, his device could outperform not only the other entries but also human doctors. "I joke with colleagues that my system does a better neural exam than they do," he says.

Harris hopes these devices will transform healthcare, especially in the US, by giving people more knowledge. "Patients crave info," he says. "I have patients come to me with scraps of paper with blood-pressure readings and things copied down from the web." For him, a better-informed population is a healthier one. The X Prize aims to take that to the next level. Chan agrees: "A lot of good will come out of this competition," he says.

So, is a tricorder about to put doctors out of a job? Not likely, says Harris. "It'll send you to the hospital but it's not going to take your appendix out."

This article appeared in print under the headline "$10m pocket doctor"