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An mHealth Quest - The Workable Tricorder - Nears Its Completion

Patterned after a Star Trek staple, mHealth devices developed by the two finalist teams in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize competition are ready for consumer testing.

By Eric Wicklund

- A five-year mission to develop the ultimate mHealth diagnostic device may soon be over.

A global competition to create a workable version of the tricorder used in Star Trek is in its last stages, with devices created by two different teams soon going to consumer testing. Each device is reportedly capable of continuously monitoring five vital health metrics and diagnosing at least 13 health conditions, all in a package no heavier than five pounds.

The biggest challenge was making the device easy to use for the average consumer.

“We didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to figure out user experience,” says Chung-Kang Peng, PhD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and lead researcher with the Taiwan-based Dynamical Biomarkers Group. “But if you can’t make it usable for the lay person, this kind of device won’t fly in the field.”

Inspired by the ubiquitous device carried by Doctor McCoy in the Star Trek TV and movie series, the Qualcomm Foundation and the XPrize Foundation launched the $10 million competition five years ago at CES 2012. Grant Campany, Qualcomm’s Tricorder XPrize lead, says the competition drew in more than 300 teams from around the world, with 40 making it through to the design and development stages.

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“This is the culmination of a lot of different technologies being put to use,” he says. “This is truly where the future is going.”

Like Peng, Basil Harris, MD, PhD, founder and lead for the Basil Leaf Technologies team from Pennsylvania, said the biggest challenge lay in creating a small, nimble device that someone could sit down and use with very little training.

“This has to be something that you can just use,” says Harris, an emergency room doctor. “They have to interact with it in a way that’s much different from how a doctor might use it.”

According to the rules of the competition, the tricorder must be able to diagnose the presence (or absence) of 10 required core conditions – anemia, atrial fibrillation, COPD, diabetes, Leukocytosis, pneumonia, Otitis Media, sleep apnea and urinary tract infection – as well as at least three elective health conditions from a set that included HIV screening, melanoma, hypertension, strep throat and shingles.

“We looked at all sorts of devices from many different fields,” says Harris. “What we’re trying to do is basically recreate the physical exam, but with non-invasive technologies [that a patient] can easily use. In the end you can have all this great technology come up with the greatest diagnosis but have no way of getting there.”

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“It has to be as basic as the smartphone that people use everyday,” he adds. “This technology may not be new to us, but it might be new to them.”

Peng says the technologies used are fairly common now, but no one has put them all together into a consumer-facing device. And while each of the tricorder’s capabilities might seem like second nature to a doctor or scientist, they had to be designed from the perspective of a housewife in California or a villager in remote China.

“The intent of the device is really being realized here,” says Campany. “We’re looking for a device that can open the door to [remote monitoring] all over the world.”

Campany says the two devices will now be tested at the Altman Clinical Translational Research Institute at the University of California-San Diego will first show the user how to work the device, then stands back and lets him/her have a go at it for 90 minutes.

The competition was extended in December 2015 for further testing on devices designed by seven finalists, after which two teams were chosen to continue. The winning team – to be announced sometime this year – will receive a $6 million prize, while the second-place team will get $2 million; another $2 million is set aside for milestone prizes.

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Peng sees the tricorder as an ideal mobile clinic for underserved and developing nations where healthcare resources are few and far between. Harris says the device can also help people who are managing chronic diseases, or those who don’t have the time to arrange a doctor’s visit or run to the nearest clinic.

“The strength of the competition is in developing a complete system – a complete doctor inside of the system – that fits” into a five-pound container, says Peng.

Dig Deeper:

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