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Building a real-life tricorder

Lankenau Medical Center April 13, 2017 Inside Main Line Health

What one portable device can monitor a patient’s vital signs and diagnose up to 15 diseases?

Until now, that device has existed only in science fiction. However, an emergency medicine physician at Lankenau Medical Center, Basil Harris, MD, is leading a team that just might turn Star Trek’s tricorder into science fact.

Dr. Harris is competing for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, which offers $10 million in prize money to the top three teams that develop the best portable, consumer-focused device for monitoring vital signs and diagnosing 15 diseases ranging from anemia to tuberculosis. In short, a real-life tricorder.

“The competition goes way beyond what was envisioned on Star Trek,” said Dr. Harris, leader of “Final Frontier Medical Devices”—a seven-person team that is a top 10 finalist in the competition.

“On Star Trek, the tricorder was just a device that collected data that the doctor had to interpret. The devices in this competition are completely autonomous. They must collect the data, analyze it and provide a diagnosis without input from a medical professional,” he said.

Later this year, the finalist teams must deliver 30 prototypes of their tricorders for final judging. Consumer volunteers will test the devices, and judging will be based on how easy they are to use, accuracy of diagnosis, ability to detect all of the diseases, and other technical criteria. Winners will be announced in January 2016.

Dr. Harris and his team members—three of whom are his siblings—took a slightly different approach than their competitors when creating their device. Instead of a sensor-heavy device or one that requires blood samples, they used just a few wireless monitors and a tablet that queries patients about their symptoms and then guides them toward a diagnosis. Call it the artificial intelligence approach.

“We did a validation study on our algorithms based on real medical data from actual patients to understand whether these algorithms were robust enough,” says Dr. Harris.

“I think that a device like the ones in this competition will have a huge impact on the healthcare system. It won’t replace doctors—the device can’t take your appendix out—but it will provide a first step to figuring out what a patient’s symptoms mean and where to go next.”

According to Dr. Harris, who says he grew up watching Star Trek, this type of contest is boldly going where no one has gone before.

“This is very different than a traditional research project,” he says. “It puts different competitive gears in motion and promotes finding the best of these devices. A lot of people are working toward this type of thing and it’s a combination of these ideas that will lead to the development of a device for actual use. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Dr. Harris and the Final Frontier Medical Devices team took home top prize in the XPRIZE competition in April 2017.