While Star Trek-style multifunctional medical "tricorders" are still in the realm of sci-fi, scientists at the University of Leicester and Leicester Royal Infirmary (LRI) in the UK may be making the first tentative steps toward making them a reality. The researchers are developing a holistic high-tech diagnostic unit designed to quickly detect the "sight, smell and feel" of disease in real time without the need for invasive and time-consuming procedures. Much of the technology being used was originally developed for space research, atmospheric chemistry and emergency medicine.
The £1million-plus Diagnostics Development unit (DDU) is essentially a standard hospital bed in the emergency department's resuscitation bay surrounded by three different technologies. The DDU will replace the doctor's eyes with state-of-the-art imaging systems, his nose with breath analysis, and "feeling the pulse" with ultra sound technology and measurement of blood oxygen levels. The aim is for all of this to take place without invasive procedures which can be unpleasant, lead to complications and infection, and possible exposure to radiation.
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Initial proof of concept studies for asthma and sepsis are already underway with encouraging results and other projects are in the planning stage for liver disease, sepsis, bruising, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Ultimately the DDU may be able to diagnose a wide range of illness including cancer, skin infections, urinary/gynaecology problems, drug overdose, cardiovascular dysfunction and rashes and allergies.
SightThe Unit features three types of imagers - multi-spectral, hyper-spectral and thermal - to give scientists information about the compounds present in the patient's body, and their metabolism and underlying structures. The imagers can detect subtle changes in skin color, sometimes before they are visible to the human eye. This technology could potentially help diagnose liver disease and skin cancers as well as examine veins close to the surface of the skin to make diagnoses of oxygen in the blood and circulation.
SmellA real-time mass spectrometer, nitric oxide analyser and micro-cantilever polymer based detector will be used to analyze the compounds in a patient's breath to provide information about their metabolism and the state of the body.
Our breath contains a range of by-products (volatile organic compounds) which can provide clues to a wide range of diseases such as diabetes asthma, sepsis, liver disease, heart disease, and several types of cancer. While gases in the breath are the main focus, the same technology can be used to analyze urine and faeces.
FeelThe DDU will use a Thoracic Impedance Monitor, Blood Flow Monitor, Oxygenation Monitor and ECG to analyze heart activity and blood circulation. Some of the equipment, such as the cardiovascular monitor, is already in use but this is the first time it has been used in an integrated way and with a large pool of patients.
Bound for MarsThe University's Space Research Centre is developing a device called the Life Marker Chip for the ExoMars space mission in 2019 which will look for organic molecules in samples from below the surface of Mars. Development of the Life Marker Chip - which will use use similar technologies to those in the DDU - involved both space technology and biology, bringing about a meeting of scientists from Cardiovascular Sciences, Emergency Medicine, Infection, Immunity and Inflammation, Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy, Space Research Centre and IT departments.
While the starting point for the DDU is emergency medicine it could one day be used in GP surgeries and ambulances. A decade years from now it might well be commonplace for diagnostic technology to be combined in this way.
One wonders what 'Bones' McCoy would make of it.
Professor Tim Coats from the University of Leicester discusses the DDU in the following video: