Health Knowledge in the Palm of Your Hand

You wake up at three in the morning feeling sick and you don’t know what’s wrong. Today, you’d have to go to a doctor to get a reliable diagnosis—but one day, you might be able to solve such problems without dragging your ill body out of the house. Enter the Tricorder, a portable device inspired by and named after the handheld machine used in the Star Trek series to detect diseases and measure various health-related parameters. There’s just one problem: the real-life Tricorder hasn’t been invented yet.

But that could be about to change. Within the next few months, the XPrize Foundation will announce the winner of its $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize to the team that best develops a device that allows consumers to seek personal medical care without directly seeing a doctor. The competition guidelines require teams to create a machine that weighs no more than five pounds and is capable of diagnosing thirteen health conditions (twelve diseases, along with absence of disease) as well as five real-time vital signs, including temperature and blood pressure.

312 teams from 38 countries preregistered for the prize, with 29 teams from nine countries having competed in the qualifying round. As of December 2016, two teams have submitted their devices to undergo testing in the final round at the Altman Clinical Translational Research Institute at the University of California, San Diego. The finalists are Dynamical Biomarkers (from Taiwan) and Basil Leaf Technologies (competing under Final Frontier Medical Devices from Pennsylvania).

These finalists will be judged on diagnostic acumen, determination of vital signs, and consumer experience as well as baseline standards set by the judging panel. The teams’ devices must correctly identify medical conditions in pre-selected pools of consumers whose diagnoses have been verified by physicians. Consumers selected may have no, one, or multiple conditions from the list of thirteen health conditions each team has defined. The device that most accurately assesses consumers’ conditions will ultimately be named the winner and walk away with $6 million for best in category. The runner-up will receive $2 million, with either team winning an additional $1 million for the device that most accurately measures vital signs. The remaining $1 million that’s part of the $10 million total prize was given as a milestone award after the qualifying round.

Dynamical Biomarkers, led by Dr. Chung-Kang Peng, Co-Director of the Rey Institute for Nonlinear Dynamics in Medicine at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center of Harvard Medical School, envisions that the team’s Tricorder device could reduce the cost of Taiwan’s universal health care as well as provide health assistance to people living in rural areas of China and also Home Care Assistance to people who need it. The team’s modular device can be wirelessly connected to a smartphone to enable consumers to easily carry out specific tests to determine their diagnosis.

Basil Leaf Technologies, led by brothers George Harris and Dr. Basil Harris, have developed a device termed “DxtER” that uses a collection of non-invasive components that are wirelessly connected to a mobile device. The brothers hope that their device will empower individuals to take control of their personal health. Both teams have incorporated innovative artificial intelligence and dynamic sensing systems to create a user-friendly device capable of diagnosing consumers’ conditions in the comfort of their own homes.

The final round of consumer testing is projected to be completed within the next few months—and then XPrize will announce the winner. The next major hurdle for either team to get their device to market and into consumers’ hands would be to submit the device to FDA testing and to ensure it complies with regulations. Once approved by the FDA, these devices could have the potential to revolutionize the healthcare industry. If effective and reliable, personal medical devices like the Tricorder would allow consumers to address their own care, which could make diagnoses more accessible, efficient, and affordable. The XPrize Tricorder devices are only the beginning of a healthcare transformation that will give more people access to their own health.

Featured image credit: Old Star Trek (the next generation) Tricorder Toy by Keith Survell via Flickr.