Almost 50 years ago, TV viewers were introduced to a nifty little sci-fi gadget on the series Star Trek that could read a patient's vital signs and diagnose diseases with a mere swipe above the surface of the body.
Now a Canadian company and 20 other teams from around the world are vying for a $10-million XPrize by trying to replicate Dr. McCoy's "tricorder" and go where no real-world medical device has gone before.
The entry by the Cloud DX team from the Toronto-based medical devices company Biosign (TSX-V:BIO) is based on an existing product called Pulsewave, a wrist-worn monitor that measures blood pressure, heart rate and pulse rhythm irregularities, as well as divining the wearer's respiration rate. Readings from the USB-powered wrist monitor appear on a small computer screen.
"For the XPrize, however, really the goal is to have something that's much more mobile, much more powerful," said chief medical officer Dr. Sonny Kohli. "So we're using that current platform and evolving it so it's XPrize ready."
Kohli, who works as a critical care physician at Oakville-Trafalgar Hospital just west of Toronto, said team Cloud DX is also designing a "home-based lab" component for its submission, which would be able to analyze blood, urine and saliva samples.
The goal of the tricorder competition, sponsored by the Qualcomm Foundation, is to create a lightweight, portable "doctor in the palm of the hand" that would allow consumers to check vital signs and to diagnose a set of 15 disorders, among them Type 2 diabetes, urinary tract infection, high cholesterol and HIV. The device would also take key measurements: blood pressure, heart rate and variability, temperature, respiration and oxygen saturation.
"Incorporating these technologies into a hand-held device will ultimately be opening up the opportunity for these devices to be sold directly to consumers," said Grant Campany, a senior director with the Los Angeles-based XPrize Foundation and lead for the Qualcomm competition.
Shortlist in August
In August, after scrutinizing the 21 teams' paper-based specifications, the non-profit XPrize Foundation will whittle down a short list of up to 10 competitors, who will then have to submit prototypes for testing by real-life patients.
"The winner will be the team whose technology most accurately diagnoses a set of diseases independent of a health-care professional or facility, and that provides the best consumer user experience with their device," the foundation says on its website.
Such an instrument could also be used by medical professionals in developing areas of the world with limited health-care resources, said Kohli.
"So a portable, mobile device that partners with your smartphone or tablet and that you can carry with you ... it becomes very powerful for remote settings," said Kohli, adding that he and other volunteers in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake could have used such a tool.
"You can imagine (using it in) low-income settings, disaster zones or on a flight, on a boat — anywhere where you can't normally access high-quality medical information and diagnostic capabilities."
Three teams will share in the prize money, with $7 million going to the winner and $2 million and $1 million to the runners-up.
If the Canadian team were to win top prize, Kohli said the money would be plowed into commercially developing the device, which he said is one of the few dreamed up by the creator of "Star Trek" that haven't become everyday reality.
"When you look back at the old TV show, you'll see that they had the concept of the cellphone nailed down, they had the Internet nailed down ... and they had the tricorder," he said. "So every one of Gene Roddenberry's visions have been achieved, except the tricorder."
The successful XPrize team was to be announced in September 2015, but Campany said the foundation is considering whether to wait to name the winner in January 2016 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the genesis of "Star Trek."