The tricorder is the ultimate objective of diagnostic medical device development: an all-in-one package that can immediately diagnose any disease without touching the patient. Is this dream reachable, or is it going to stay in science fiction?
It’s starting to look more and more like it is: investors just bet 35 Million dollars that Scanadu can do it, DMI won the Nokia Sensing XChallenge by creating a lab on a chip device capable of running 22 tests with a drop of blood, and prototypes are being revealed left, right and center.
The name ‘tricorder’ comes from Star Trek, and was coined by the announcement of a tricorder X-Prize. Though not quite the nearly-magical device used in the show, the goal of the tricorder X-Prize is to produce an “automatic non-invasive health diagnostics packaged into a single portable device that weighs no more than 5 pounds (2.3 kg), able to diagnose over a dozen medical conditions, including whooping cough, hypertension, mononucleosis, shingles, melanoma, HIV, and osteoporosis”. If successful, a device like this can and will revolutionize the diagnostic industry.
These teams are faced many challenging aspects if they are to complete their units. Here are a few of the most significant:
The technology required to diagnose all of these diseases is already available, though commonly they require blood samples, or are far too bulky and slow to be possible in a handheld device. Portable versions are being adapted by many groups right now, but will likely be slow to get to market as typically people (in countries with hospitals) can accept going to the doctor and getting blood taken for these tests… Little do they know what they are missing!
The key technology for such devices will be sensors. The go-to tool for a distanced diagnosis is imaging, which as Photonix notes, is a growing field very related to the tricorder. Philips already offers an iPhone app that can sense heartbeat from a distance using the change in skin temperature.
Most likely, a combination of a wearable sensors and diagnostic scanners will be required to create a tricorder. Sweat sensors, UV detectors, and all-in-one devices are already being researched. When coupled with the growing wearable sensors and MEMS market, these technologies will also be affordable. Whether or not a user wishes to wear one every day is another challenge.
More and more, people are willing to include technology in all aspects of their lives. The internet of things means that soon our coffee maker can turn on when we wake up and our alarm will turn off when we come with a few feet of our house. For these to realistically work people will be required to connect themselves to the internet. For the next decade or two, this may manifest in the form of smartwatches, which can track and share our location to our alarm system and our heartbeat to our coffee maker. If people are wearing sensors every day, integrating a heart attack diagnostic tool or a UV-exposure warning alarm is just a small step away. Integrated digital health tracking will lead to integrated diagnostics, making a tricorder that interfaces with them all the more likely, regulatory concerns (which are a major hurdle) notwithstanding.
The next logical step past smart wearables is implantable sensors. Though you might argue that an implant cannot be part of a tricorder because it is invasive, once they are implanted a daily check for a range of diseases is entirely non-invasive and much more effective that a camera scan. Imagine a future where a device implanted into your body tracks your workout routine in the morning and lets you know you have liver cancer in the afternoon. It’s not as far away as you might think.
The last major consideration of the Tricorder is logistical. How much will it cost, and how long will it take to make its diagnosis? These are major hurdles in the tricorder development, but they will be solved over time. Though it’s not possible to make a cheap personal tricorder today, it will be eventually by the nature of market and technology changes.
One of the more focused-upon logistical considerations of the X-Prize is the user interface. A tricorder is supposed to be able to be used by anyone, without training, and present simple enough conclusions to be useful. Doctors make diagnostic conclusions based on a quantified values, patient observation, and history. They draw on years of experience to make expert conclusions. Trying to replace their thinking power with computers is a massive challenge: right now 2/3 of computerized diagnoses are wrong. It is also a huge legal gamble: robots can’t be sued for a misdiagnosis, but robotics companies can. A former colleague thinks diagnostic devices will never be completely automated. Although I agree, I think this could be the most exciting output from the X-Prize contestants.
The Final Word
Regardless of how close the tricorders of the X-Prize are to the Star-Trek version, I think the device is possible and the prize will yield some amazing results that will remind us that the future is now. Shortly after the winners are announced you may start to hear that at-home tricorder scanners are just around the corner, but don’t be fooled. I predict the first useful tricorders will have to be integrated with digital health devices worn on or inside our bodies to be truly effective. Better start getting used to the idea soon!