Star Trek’s Legacy To Medical Technology


Among the most enduring achievements of Star Trek is the advanced technology it envisioned, inspiring generations of students to become scientists consumed with creating some of the futuristic devices that became indispensable in the twenty-third century created by Gene Roddenberry. The saga has in some respects become synonymous with innovation as the list of inventions created from all its incarnations have been world changing. It also reinforces the notion that many inventions are already functionally complete in the mind’s eye of the inventor. All that is left is to figure out how to wire it all together to make it do what it’s creator intended it to do.

One of the most interesting ideas, for example, was the flip open pocket sized  communicator that was introduced by Kirk and Spock in the 1966 series. It was used to communicate with the ship, with each other and the other members of the landing party most of whom wore red shirts and said little or nothing. They inevitably became the subject of one of Dr. McCoy’s most beloved lines, “He’s dead, Jim.” It was not just a novelty item for collectors, but the design for the first new wave of pocket sized cell phones that revolutionized the way we communicate. On the Enterprise the communications officer, Lieutenant Uhura, was in charge of all ship communications.

tricorder-spock1Another important prototype was the touch tone panel of the The Next Generation, oddly similar to the iPad and iPhone, essentially a mobile computer in tablet form that provides access to vast amounts of information when linked to the Internet.

Then there was the transporter, going from one place to an other in the blink of an eye. Even today, respected physicists and biologists are considering the obstacles to find the solution and create one.There have been several episodes on the science channel devoted solely to the science of star trek, often using particle physics to understand how it could be done, including the hollow deck, a room that turns fantasy into a photon simulated reality.

The most endearing of the devices was the tricorder. There were several types. One was the standard device, issued to the crew on an away mission to determine atmospheric composition, mineral deposits, unusual energy anomalies and all functions necessary for a geological survey and data analysis.

TNG-MedicalTricorderMy personal favorite was the medical tricorder, the device that Dr. McCoy held in one hand and a small scanner in the other moving it from head to toe of the patient as he read the vital signs such as blood pressure, respiration rate, pulse, blood oxygen levels; it also had the capability to scan the bones for fractures, head injuries and abnormal brain functioning, before Bones announced yet again, “He’s dead Jim.”

In The Next Generation the medical tricorder was far more sophisticated, easy to carry, sleek and light weight with a silver tone external casing and all those different colored lights and sounds that Dr. Crusher used to make a preliminary diagnosis. It became one of the most familiar devices appearing in virtually every episode.

Now, in an incredible leap into the future of medical technology, a company called Scanadu has invented the first working medical tricorder. Their team competed in the Qualcomm Tricorder Competition X  inspired by the Star Trek franchise. The challenge was for contemporary scientists and students to adapt the franchise’s cutting edge technology for twenty-first century use. They offered a ten million dollar prize for the development of the medical tricorder.

This particular device is called Scout and it may prove to be one of the most important medical tools used for the diagnosis of diseases since the development of the stethoscope. Although its the first of its kind, there will be other generations of this device with more advanced capabilities that are even smaller  as competition encourages other companies to develop their own medical tricorder.

scanadu-profilescanadu-in-handAccording to Jesus Diaz who reported the invention in Gizmodo, “the Scanadu Scout is a tiny hardware device that reads your vital health information on contact. You place it on the left temple and, in less than ten seconds, it will read your pulse, respiration rate, heart rate, electrical heart activity, temperature, blood oxygenation levels and more. Then it sends this information to an application on your iPhone, iPad or Android which displays the medical analysis for you to consider. You can even store your vitals for tracking.”

It doesn’t require a medical background to comprehend some of the measurements but an understanding of some medical terminology would be helpful. Its potential value is as a home based or mobile unit that can quickly identify a person with a fever or infection and offer an initial diagnoses based on the facts in seconds. It is not meant to replace the doctor, but to be used as the first alert that something medical is going on and by providing concrete information that the average person can interpret in simple easy to understand terminology. Its most important use will be the ability to identify medical abnormalities early so that disease progression can be prevented. It is currently being evaluated by the FDA and is set to go on the market in late 2013 for a very reasonable $150. The display panel that appears on the touch screen phone is easy to read and understand and resembles the star trek interface. How fitting that Scout will be ready at the same time President Obama’s Affordable Care Act is fully implemented as one of the most important pieces of legislation for early detection and prevention of medical disease in the last century.

4628192903_54b4e55139_mWalter de Brouwer, the founder of Scanadu has a history working on some high profile technological projects such as the OLPC ( One Labtop Per Child). He was motivated to develop the Scout when his own child was in the ICU. “Frustrated by the complicated devices that monitored my child’s health, my idea was to create a simple easy to use device that could turn this information into something that the average person could understand. I recognized the need for a mobile device that would be able to monitor health anywhere with ease at a low cost. I thought about instantaneous vital readings, molecular diagnostics, visualization, and storage of personal health data all wrapped into an easy-to-use device that would connect to a smartphone or tablet to show you all the information not only for yourself, but also for transmission by remote to your physician.”

De Browuer started to work on what would become Scout,  then on the ScanaFlo and ScanaFlu to diagnose other medical conditions using saliva and urine. “He assembled four teams of specialists at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. The team was composed of engineers, chemists, doctors, mathematicians and software engineers working together to come up with new, smart ways not only to monitor vitals, but to detect actual infections within seconds.” According to de Browuer, they used all the tricks in the book: imaging and sound analysis, molecular diagnostics and data analytics, all based on a series of algorithms to create a device that offers a comprehensive, real-time picture of your health.

The reason why this device is so important, is that it is cost effective, keeps track of your own health with the capability of storing past readings to identify patterns via data analysis. It can also be easily used to detect infectious outbreaks on a national or planetary level, with people anonymously uploading data to a cloud. The Center for Disease Control or the World Health Organization can literally keep track of whats going on around the world and identify infectious outbreaks earlier.

As Dr. Alan Greene, Chief Medical Officer at Scanadu said, “When it comes to health, averages don’t cut it. Vital signs change throughout the day and vary from person to person, so it makes no sense to assume we are all the same. Health decisions shouldn’t be based on averages, they should be based on an accurate and personalized health feed of data, which we now have the power to give to the consumer in the palm of their hand.”

The late Gene Roddenberry and the whole Star Trek team of writers, science experts and actors have much to be proud of as they watch how this device first conceived for Star Trek in 1966 could very well change the world by revolutionizing medical diagnosis.

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