For the past five years, Taiwan-based Dynamical Biomarkers Group has been developing a prototype device which pairs diagnostic algorithms with analytical methodology in a user-friendly device, all controlled through a smartphone. For their efforts, they were selected as the second-place finalist of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE and received $1 million toward further development of their Tricorder.
Equally as impressive as the first-place winning DxtER, the Tricorder from Dynamical Biomarkers Group consists of a system of three modules: a vitals sensing monitor, a blood and urine test kit, and a multifunction scope. Designed simply and intuitively with consumers in mind, the system connects with a user-friendly smartphone app.
We asked Dr. Chung-Kang Peng, Ph.D, the team leader of Dynamical Biomarkers Group, to share a little more about his experience developing the device, what’s next for it, and, in the spirit of Star Trek, what he thinks the next 50 years of healthcare might look like:
Scott Jung, Medgadget: What was your approach toward the design of your prototype?
Dr. Chung-Kang Peng: Our approach was very simple: we, first and foremost, put priority in recruiting the right people and institutions into our team. We wanted people who were willing to share their ideas, think out of the box, and were generally excited about making a Tricorder device a reality. Our team was ultimately composed of 3 types of members: (1) clinicians and physician researchers who provided important insights about disease conditions and patient experiences and who ultimately grounded the device to levels of medical validity, (2) biological engineers and physicists who brought state-of-the-art technologies such as microfluidics and electronic sensing and who pushed the boundaries of exploration, and (3) electrical and material engineers, software programmers, and designers who facilitated the fabrication of the device and the creation of apps and who balanced clinical validity and exciting technologies under the confines of material feasibility.
Once we had the right people, the design of the prototype became an almost natural, organic process. Typically, the process began with clinical experts educating the team on a specific medical condition and various ways in which the condition can be diagnosed. This was followed by engineers and designers exploring novel, yet feasible ways in which these conditions can be assessed. Subsequently, the design and fabrication of the diagnostic tests were completed, followed by rigorous testing with a close eye on diagnostic accuracy and user experience. Naturally, this process was not singular, and we went through numerous failures and iterations.
Ultimately, the final challenge was to integrate all the diagnostic pieces together and to assemble them together into a coherent set of parts with shared appearances, themes, and procedures.
Medgadget: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned through this experience?
Peng: Probably the biggest lesson from this experience is that creating a Tricorder-like device is not impossible. Prior to embarking on this challenge, the idea of creating a device capable of accurately diagnosing 15 medical conditions seemed so distant and nearly unachievable – particularly within the 3 year time-frame initially proposed by the XPRIZE Foundation. Now, we feel that not only are we close to achieving this goal but that we are also capable of expanding the Tricorder capabilities to many more conditions: of course, with the important recognition that it took a village to get us here, and it will take a village to take us farther. Close collaboration between academia and industry will be extremely important and so is the capacity to tackle this challenge with novel clinical validation methodologies, crowd-sourcing, and recruitment of ambitious, unafraid scientists and pioneers.
Medgadget: Many major consumer technology companies are investing in healthcare, and your team received support from HTC. What role did they play in the development of the device and what is their long-term interest in your device, as well as the healthcare space? How did this relationship come about?
Peng: Once the Tricorder competition was announced, I was able to pitch and sell the vision of the Tricorder to HTC and to convince them of our competitiveness if they were to join the team. As expected, HTC was and remains an absolutely critical component of our team – without whom our Tricorder would not have been possible. Their resources and expertise in designing and fabricating the Tricorder sets were absolutely essential. We are in the process of laying out the long-term plans for the Tricorder and determining what aspects of it mandates additional research and development.
Medgadget: If you had an additional year to work on your device, what were some of the ideas and features you wanted to implement that ended up on the cutting room floor?
Peng: We initially proposed and explored the use of various technologies such as the Electronic Nose Sensor and Microfluidic chips for blood tests. Ultimately, these were eliminated partly due to the 5 pound weight restriction imposed by the XPRIZE rules and partly due to logistical challenges in ensuring the correct environmental conditions for optimal implementation of these technologies. We intend to continue researching these novel technologies and to explore other affordable, easy-to-use innovations (such as rapid, low-cost paper-based assays).
Medgadet: What’s next for your device? What’s next for your team?
Peng: We plan to develop a 2nd generation Tricorder device system and hope to apply this technology to remote areas where medical access is limited. In the immediate future, we hope to apply this to rural areas of China and then to possibly extend the implementation to other developing areas such as India, South America, and Africa. In addition, we plan on validating our existing diagnostic tests, expanding the repertoire to multiple other medical conditions, creating a mechanism to rapidly validate clinical diagnostic tests in a large-scale manner, exploring novel technologies and collaborations, and establishing ways in which patients can play a more proactive role in guiding the direction of our work.
Medgadget: Star Trek recently celebrated its 50th birthday. What do you envision the next 50 years of healthcare looking like?
Peng: Like many others, we envision healthcare to be more personalized, affordable, and responsive within the next 50 years. But we also envision that our medical sciences will increasingly appreciate the dynamic properties of our human body. The body is composed of trillions of cells that are somehow perfectly orchestrated in an integrated, purposeful manner. This dynamic coordination and synchronization is largely still unknown to us and will likely become increasingly revealed to us over the next few decades.