Latest from SXSW: Why the Tricorder XPrize Is Behind Schedule

The futuristic diagnostic device from Star Trek still belongs to the future

3 min read
Latest from SXSW: Why the Tricorder XPrize Is Behind Schedule
Here’s what the XPrize Tricorder teams are aiming for. They’re not quite there yet.
Image: XPrize

According to the original plan, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize should be announcing its grand prize winner right about now. The proud organizers should be bestowing a US $10-million check on the team that successfully built a consumer device capable of monitoring vital signs and diagnosing a variety of diseases—just like the tricorder wielded with such gusto by the medical officers of Star Trek.  

Instead, after the finalist teams began consumer testing of their devices last year, the XPrize decided that everything needed to be pushed back—because those initial tests didn’t go well. “The teams fell short in terms of performance,” says Grant Campany, director of the prize. Now the teams are improving their technology for a new round of testing in September 2016, and a winner will be declared in early 2017. 

In an interview with IEEE Spectrum before a panel discussion about the tricorder prize at SXSW Interactive, Campany forthrightly explained the reason for the delay. 

When the teams delivered their devices for testing at UC San Diego’s Clinical and Translational Research Institute, the evaluators recruited real patients with the diseases that the tricorder is meant to diagnose. The tricorders were required to monitor 5 vital signs and identify 16 conditions. “The devices did do well in vital signs and user experience,” Campany says, “but they fell short in the diagnostics.” Which was the most important part.

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Photo: David Lodge/FilmMagic/Getty Images
Once engineers build Star Trek’s medical tricorder, let’s put them to work on the holodeck

The main problem was that the devices’ algorithms couldn’t deal with the complexity of humans, Campany says. Remember, these devices aren’t meant to be used with a doctor’s help; instead consumers should be able to work their tricorders on their own. So when a user fires up a tricorder, it first asks about symptoms. Based on those answers it will interpret the user’s vital signs and instruct the user to conduct various tests to arrive at a diagnosis.

But two people with hypertension might describe their symptoms in completely different ways, Campany says. As testing began at UC San Diego, it quickly became clear that the devices’ decision-making software wasn’t reliably arriving at the right diagnoses. 

After about 50 tests, the XPrize organizers called a halt. “We still think that these teams are two years ahead of where the industry is,” Campany says, but the teams needed more R&D time if they were going to meet the XPrize’s ambitious goals.  

There have been a few other changes to the competition as well. A few teams dropped out: Of the original ten finalists, seven teams now remain. The organizers also scaled back the number of conditions that the tricorders are required to diagnose, from 16 to 13. Campany says they removed some of the conditions from the list because they couldn’t recruit enough patients in the San Diego area with that condition (such as hepatitis A). They also removed the requirement to detect stroke because “the risks outweighed the benefits,” Campany says. The organizers didn’t want patients at risk of stroke to rely on experimental devices when their lives might be at stake. 

The remaining list of conditions is far from comprehensive, but Campany says it provides a representative sample, including acute illnesses like pneumonia and urinary tract infections and chronic ailments such as diabetes and pulmonary disease. The long-term goal, he says, is to create a device that can serve as a general platform and that can be updated routinely to diagnose more diseases. If one of the teams succeeds in meeting the short-term goal of producing a device that provides accurate diagnoses, they can start on that next challenge. 

What’s it like for the teams competing in the Tricorder XPrize? Read more here: The Race to Build a Real-Life Version of the “Star Trek” Tricorder

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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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