Wouldn't it be amazing if we all had a personal medical scanning device like Star Trek's tricorder? Now the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is hoping to make it happen. We spoke to some contestants to learn how they're planning to win part of the $10 million in prize money.
The grand prize is worth $7 million, while second place takes $2 million and third place $1 million. The event is sponsored by Qualcomm, an American semiconductor company that designs, manufactures and markets digital wireless telecommunications products and services.
Setting aside the prize money, these sorts of contests actually work. Back in 2004, the Ansari XPRIZE was won by Mojave Aerospace Ventures after successfully developing feasible suborbital spaceflight via SpaceShipOne. Spurred on by that success, the XPRIZE Foundation has initiated several other contests, including prizes for innovative oil spill cleanup methods, a lunar lander, medical sensing technologies, and for improving our understanding of ocean acidification.
As for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, its purpose is to do nothing less than revolutionize the way we do digital healthcare.
Indeed, a serious problem facing many nations today is the disturbing shortage of healthcare workers. It's estimated that 57 countries have a shortage of 2.3 million physicians, nurses, and midwives. What's more, there are tremendous affordability and access hurdles. And just to add insult to injury, only 55% of patients receive the recommended screening, diagnosis, or treatment — even when they finally do obtain health care. A medical tricorder device — one that's mobile, powerful, affordable, and accessible — would do much to alleviate these problems. This is why the contest motto is "Healthcare in the palm of your hand."
How to Build a Medical Tricorder
The name of the contest is quite obviously taken from the fictional device used in the Star Trek universe. In that show, the medical hand-held device was used by doctors to help diagnose disease and collect bodily information about a patient. The word itself is a portmanteau of "tri" and "recorder", referring to three input keys, namely GEO (geological), MET (meteorological), and BIO (biological) functions.
To win the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, contestants have been asked to create a mobile device that's not exactly like the one used in Star Trek — but one that would be powerful nonetheless.
It needs to continuously monitor five vital signs, namely blood pressure, electrocardiography (i.e. ECG, or heart rate/variability), body temperature, respiratory rate, and oxygen saturation. It must be able to screen for over a dozen different conditions, including whooping cough, hypertension, mononucleosis, shingles, melanoma, HIV, and osteoporosis.
The device, because it's intended for home use, has to be user-friendly (it must present the data in an appealing and understandable way), be able to monitor vital signs over the course of the testing period, be capable of uploading data to the cloud, and have a maximum weight of no more than five pounds. And it needs to be able to perform all these functions within a 72-hour period.
You can read the entire list of contest specifications here.
From 300 down to 10
Some 300 teams from around the world initially signed up for the competition. That list was whittled down to 34 this past November. Of these, 21 teams come from the United States, while Canada and the United Kingdom are each represented by three teams. Other nations in the running include Slovenia, Poland, India, Greece, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Netherlands. A list of all the teams can be found here.
The list will be dropped down to ten after the April 2014 qualifying round. During this stage, judges will review detailed documentation and a status update of each team's proposed solution. These remaining teams will then refine their tricorders and test them on patients throughout the winter and spring of 2015.
Looking to learn more, I contacted several members of the teams involved, including Robert Kaul from Cloud DX/Biosign Technologies Inc. (Canada), Theo Moss and Tatiana Rypinski from Aezon (United States), Daša Košec from MESI Simplifying Diagnosis (Slovenia), and Basil Harris from Final Frontier Medical Devices (United States). Here's what each of them had to say about their attempts to build the world's first medical tricorder.
Team Cloud DX
Canadian company Biosign was already working on a tricorder-like device when they found out about the XPRIZE. The company has a system, called Pulsewave, that was already capable of simultaneously deriving accurate readings of the five major vital signs.
"Once we realized that we had cleared one major competition hurdle — the simultaneous measurement of all five vital signs — we decided we had a real shot at winning one of the top three prizes," Robert Kaul told io9.
Indeed, the team at Biosign has always had an eye to the future. Team lead Sonny Kohli was a former Canadian astronaut candidate.
The system proposed by Cloud DX consists of two interlocking systems that work together. The first step, vital signs, is done with the company's Pulsewave MAX health monitor. It's a comfortable inflatable cuff that wraps around the wrist, while a multi-sensor clip on the tip of a finger records body temperature, photoplethysmograph (PPG sensor) signal, and ECG signal. All this data is beamed to a tablet or smartphone via bluetooth and then uploaded to their servers.
For the second part, fluid samples, their system can analyze three bodily fluids: saliva, urine, and a blood drop. Software then determines whether a fluid sample needs to be analyzed, and which fluid and test is required. Users place a fluid sample on a test cassette and add a drop of reagent. Everything from this point onwards is automatic — including a biochemical reaction inside indicating the presence of a pathogen, metabolite, or chemical. A colored line or dot then appears much like a home pregnancy test. Once the data has been uploaded, Biosign's Cloud Diagnostics algorithms do the rest.
"The core functions of a tricorder are available today, in the sense that we can record multiple channels of data simultaneously, use cloud computing power to analyze these signals, and determine with clinical accuracy that a certain condition exists," says Kaul. "Using our technology in the field will feel a little bit like a Star Trek away mission in the 24th century: simple non-invasive sensors record your data; a swab, or at worst, a small drop of blood is all the system needs; and our unique user interface guides you to the proper conclusion: either you are perfectly okay, or you have a certain condition (dammit Jim!) and here's what you need to do. We may even include the sound effects!"
By 2024, Kaul speculates that the Pulsewave system will record data on many more channels, such as wearable sensors, ingestible sensors, and even passive sensors built into furniture, house, office and car.
"The software will build a comprehensive 3D picture of your body — all your vital signs — movements, posture, what you eat, drink and excrete," he says. "This data will be stored in your private, encrypted Biosign account, but you will be able to grant access to your close family members or caregivers. "
Team Aezon built itself around the competition after learning about the contest in a Wired Magazine article.
"I thought it would be a cool project with a potentially big impact," Tatiana Rypinski told io9. Amazingly, the team is composed entirely of undergraduate students from Johns Hopkins University. They've even set up an Indiegogo campaign to get financial support.
"We have to balance work for the competition with our intense schoolwork and do not have the resources that many of the big companies do," said Theo Moss. "However, we believe that we have a winning idea, which is why we've stayed in the competition."
To make their tricorder work, team Aezon is using a smartphone as the primary interface. It will be equipped with a "Lab Box" component for screening diseases that require a user's fluid input.
"Unlike the Star Trek Tricorder, our system doesn't scan you from afar," said Rypinski, "you interact with the device and use it yourself."
They've also got a separate vitals monitoring component designed by Aegle that wraps around the users' neck.
"We still have a ways to go before it's as all encompassing as the Tricorder from Star Trek, but this is really good start and we hope it will pave the way for that kind of technology and greater technological healthcare reform," added Moss. "What we really want to do is put your health in your hands and help people to work with their doctors instead of just listening to what they say."
I asked Team Aezon what kind of digital medical technologies we can expect in the future.
"Imagine a Life Alert but one that doesn't need to be pressed," responded Moss. "One that can contact the hospital because it knows you're having a stroke or a heart attack and can communicate to the user and people nearby what is going on and what the correct way to help is."
He says that healthcare will no longer be something people go to the doctor for — it will be something they can measure and explore safely themselves with their own equipment. What's more, future med-tech will help people keep better records of what's going on inside their bodies.
After talking to its customers, MESI came to the realization that physicians are lacking the comprehensive overview of patients' health conditions. It's for this reason that the company is now working to connect home and professional diagnostics. MESI hopes to win the XPRIZE with their unique solution to the problem.
"It complemented our vision of home diagnostics perfectly and offered a potential award worth $10 million," Daša Košec told me. To that end, MESI joined forces with Gigodesign, D.Labs, and Jozef Stefan Institute to compete for their share of the winnings.
Until now, all reliable diagnostics procedures were performed only at health care facilities, but MESI is working to change this by introducing professional diagnostics to the home. The company's solution is driven by a medical grade wristband, a smartphone application, and in-depth modules — all of which enable fast diagnosis done regardless of the location.
Vital signs are continuously monitored, a questionnaire leads users towards a diagnosis, and modules support the entire process. The entire medical history is saved in an application while enabling detailed screening of an individual's health condition. In addition, data is shared with the physician who can then prescribe therapy based on a broader range of information. The result is considerable savings in time, energy and medical costs.
"With our solution, you do not need to visit a physician to have your first check up," adds Košec. In the future, she says that we'll be able to know even more about an individual's health condition while the system itself will work automatically and invisibly — from the extended diagnosis done at home to the routine procedures at robotic health care facilities.
Final Frontier Medical Devices
"The failures of our current healthcare system are staggering for both patients and providers," Basil Harris told me. "When I read about the XPRIZE competition — to build a portable, in-home, wireless device that can actually diagnose diseases — I was immediately intrigued."
Harris, along with his brother, have been interested in technology and science fiction from a young age.
"We were always tinkering and building stuff. We did our research on XPRIZE and realized we could actually win this thing."
Together, the two founded the Final Frontier Medical Devices team to design and develop the Tricorder for the competition. They recruited content experts in hardware design, medical sensors, and mobile tech.
Harris has a background in computer science, which has led to his hypothesis that an artificially intelligent medical diagnostic engine will eventually be able to autonomously diagnose a limited set of medical conditions in patients appearing at the ER.
"Our device reaches a diagnosis exactly the same way as is done in the ER," says Harris. "Our team has deconstructed the diagnostic process to its base components and replicated it to build our device's brain."
Harris's diagnostic tool pulls together elements from vital signs, patient history, physical exams, labs, and special studies in order to make its assessment. Because of his experience in the ER, Harris has ensured that the system is not overly complicated.
"Physicians face the constant influx of patients, some with minor injuries or illnesses and some with major trauma or on the brink of death," he says. "To be effective, ER doctors have to keep it simple to get the diagnosis quickly and accurately."
Harris says that consumers are already demanding more from the existing market of wearable activity monitors. "This technology takes things so much further — it will be like having a miniature doctor's office and lab right in the home."
Finally, there's the Scanadu SCOUT to consider — a $150 device that's considered a front-runner in the contest.
The futuristic health scanner works by holding it to your forehead for about ten seconds. It then transmits the data — such as pulse transit time, heart rate, electrical heart activity, temperature, heart rate variability and blood oxygenation — to a smart phone via bluetooth.
These vitals can then be stored for tracking, which could prove fundamental to many health situations at home.
Best of luck to all the teams involved — you're all helping to make the fantastic vision of a Star Trek future a reality.