Star Trek medical tricorder closer to becoming reality

Qualcomm awards its Tricorder XPrize for a non-invasive medical device that diagnoses 13 medical conditions, while Apple works on a device to monitor glucose levels

Final Frontier Medical Devices DxtER
Final Frontier Medical Devices

You know how on Star Trek doctors can diagnose what’s wrong with you just by waving a sparkly little salt shaker (no, really) over your body, or read your vital signs from a medical tricorder—a device that looks suspiciously like an old cassette recorder? Well, not surprisingly, it turns out that kind of medical technology would be tremendously valuable in the real world, and a pair of recent reports suggests we may be actually getting close to achieving it.

Just like a Star Trek tricorder, only clunkier

First, the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize has been awarded for creating mobile devices that can non-invasively diagnose 13 medical conditions—and can be used by consumers without requiring professional help.

Out of the 312 teams entered in the contest begun in 2012, based on accuracy and ease of use, Pennsylvania’s Final Frontier Medical Devices won the $2.6 million first prize for DxtER (“Dexter”), which monitors contest-mandated vital signs and conditions such as anemia, atrial fibrillation, blood pressure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, heart rate, leukocytosis, otitis media, pneumonia, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, sleep apnea, temperature, and urinary tract infections, as well as elective conditions such as hypertension, mononucleosis, and pertussis.

The $1 million second place prize went to Dynamical Biomarkers Group out of Taiwan, which diagnoses the 10 core conditions as well as hypertension, melanoma and shingles. (Both teams had previously been awarded $1 million prizes for qualifying as finalists.)

It’s not quite Star Trek-level technology, of course.

“The devices are clunkier and not as magic-based as the Star Trek version,” Final Frontier leader Basil Harris told Fast Company. “Sometimes it requires a blood or urine sample” and makes use of medical questionnaires to help eliminate possible diagnoses.

Apple chases the Holy Grail

It’s hard not to get excited by real-life tricorders, no matter how clunky. But CNBC reports that Apple has hired a team of more than 30 biomedical engineers to develop “a noninvasive blood-sugar monitor to help those suffering from diabetes.”

Often referred to as the holy grail for diabetes treatment, these sensors were apparently envisioned by the late Steve Jobs. Reportedly, the super-secret project’s goal is to accurately and continuously monitor glucose levels without piercing the skin—perhaps by using optical sensors shining light through the skin—and then make that information available on a remote device, such as an Apple Watch.

While the project has apparently been in the works for some five years, it has now “advanced to the point where Apple has started conducting feasibility trials at clinical sites in the Bay Area” and engaged regulatory consultants, according to CNBC.

Apple isn’t talking, of course. And other companies, including Alphabet’s Verily, are working on similar devices and other approaches to non-invasive glucose monitoring, but the task has long been regarded as fiendishly difficult. Still, while it’s not as cool as a tricorder, a successful solution to glucose monitoring that doesn’t involve piercing the skin would be a huge boon for diabetes suffers—and a big win for Apple and the otherwise disappointing Apple Watch.

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