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.
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.
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.
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:
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