10 Finalist Teams Announced for Tricorder XPrize

Teams will try to make Star Trek's diagnostic device a reality

2 min read
Picture of a tricorder from Star Trek
Photo: David Lodge/FilmMagic/Getty Images

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In the Star Trek reality of the 23rd century, a doctor like Leonard "Bones" McCoy can wave his trusty tricorder over a patient's body and get an immediate diagnosis from the device. Now, ten teams of engineers are vying to make such a device available to the consumers of our humble 21st century.

The Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize announced its ten finalist teams yesterday at the annual conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society (EMBS). Each team must now get to work on building a consumer-friendly device that can diagnose 15 diseases and measure 5 vital signs. At the EMBS meeting there's been a lot of talk about distributing healthcare technologies, shifting power from doctors to patients, and letting people manage their own care with sensors and data analytics. The Tricorder XPrize expresses this theme neatly with its tagline: "Healthcare in the palm of your hand." 

The finalist teams include Scanadu, a Silicon Valley startup that Spectrum has written about before. Another contender that looks like a heavyweight is Boston-based Team DMI, which is building a device that uses a drop of blood for diagnoses, based on single-molecule DNA scanning. The roster of finalists is impressively international, with other teams hailing from India, Canada, Taiwan, and several European countries. 

Today's wearable devices can already measure vital signs without much difficulty. But the disease diagnoses will pose a real challenge. The 21st century tricorders must be able to diagnose such conditions as diabetes, stroke, pneumonia, tuberculosis, hepatitis A, and the heart condition atrial fibrillation. 

The devices will be judged on both diagnostic accuracy and consumer experience in the second half of 2015, and the $10 million in prize money will be parceled out to the top three teams in 2016. And the gadgets could potentially wind up in medicine cabinets not long after that: the XPrize says that the FDA will consult with the teams throughout the competition to prepare them for regulatory review. 

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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