Brothers Win XPrize for “Star Trek”-Inspired Tricorder

Final Frontier Medical Devices takes home $2.6 million for mobile diagnostic device

2 min read
Winners of Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE hold check

The results are in! Wait, first we should double-check that we’re reading from the right cue card

The winner of the long-awaited Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is Pennsylvania-based Final Frontier Medical Devices. Final Frontier developed a mobile device able to diagnose 13 health conditions while continuously monitoring five vital signs. The award was announced yesterday at a ceremony in Los Angeles. 

“We could not be more pleased with the quality of innovation and performance of the teams who competed,” said Marcus Shingles, CEO of the XPRIZE Foundation, in a statement.

In 2012, the nonprofit company XPRIZE and U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm launched the competition to incentivize companies to build a medical tricorder–a portable device to rapidly diagnose medical conditions—right out of the scenes of “Star Trek.” The original field, comprising 312 applicants, was narrowed to 10 finalists in August 2014.

All of us Trekkies held our breath for the final announcement last spring, but organizers pushed back the contest’s timelines due to poor initial results. In early tests, the prototype tricorders fell short of being able to actually diagnose the required set of health conditions such as anemia and sleep apnea.

DxtER system The DxtER device XPRIZE

But the past year must have gone well for the devices’ developers, because now there’s a winner. Final Frontier, helmed by two brothers (Basil Harris, an emergency room physician, and George Harris, a network engineer), spent four years creating and testing DxtER (pronounced “dexter”). The device relies upon a group of non-invasive sensors, such as a blood pressure cuff and temperature monitor, that collect data on vital signs, body chemistry, and biological function. That data is fed into the “brains” of the machine, a set of algorithms trained with actual patient data.

“The tricorder that we’re developing for this competition is more advanced than the tricorder from the Star Trek series,” said Basil Harris in a recent XPrize video, although he laughingly admitted the Star Trek tricorder has three LED lights, while theirs only has two.

The Final Frontier team takes home the top prize of $2.5 million. A second-place prize of $1 million was granted to Taiwan-based finalist, Dynamical Biomarkers Group, led by Harvard Medical School associate professor Chung-Kang Peng. All competing teams had acess to a dedicated Food and Drug Administration (FDA) help desk to facilitate the development of the devices. The organizers plan to continue to facilitate the testing and development of the tricorders, according to the award statement, and to swiftly manufacture and distribute them upon regulatory approval.

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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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