Gizmag recently caught up with Team Aezon members Krzysztof Sitko and Neil Rens for an in-depth discussion of their finalist entry to the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. The competition aims to stimulate advances in the field of diagnostic equipment, with the incentive of a US$10 million prize purse. Such technology has the potential to revolutionize the speed and accuracy with which a diagnosis can be made outside of a hospital environment.

Earlier this month, 10 of the most promising teams were chosen to advance to the November 2015 final of the Tricorder XPRIZE. Criteria for the competition requires that the team's tricorder be capable of monitoring key health metrics such as blood pressure and respiratory rate, and have the ability to accurately diagnose 15 core conditions. Just to make this a little tougher on the competitors, the winning tricorder must be simple enough to be used unaided by the average consumer. Team Aezon's tricorder is comprised of three key elements: the Arc, the Lab Box and a smartphone app through which the information captured by the diagnostic equipment is presented.

Team Aezon intends to collect the health metrics needed for the competition through an unobtrusive piece of wearable tech known as the Arc.

"We were experimenting with different places to measure vital signs because we thought that people wouldn't want to have multiple devices," explains Sitko, co-founder of Aegle, the startup responsible for designing the sleek vitals-monitoring device. "We found ourselves gravitating towards the neck as the best compromise of the different requirements."

The Arc represents an elegant solution to vitals monitoring, taking the form of a light, comfortable and compact collar-like device designed to constantly monitor an individual whilst doing away with the customary restrictive array of sensors ordinarily required by modern diagnostic equipment. It gathers the health metrics from veins running up the user's neck, and boasts an accelerometer for tracking motion, an infrared diode to measure temperature, optical sensors to measure blood oxygen levels, and sensors designed to capture respiratory rate.

Artist's impression of the Lab Box (Image: Aezon)

The wearable also contains electrodes that allow it to take electrocardiogram readings. Currently, Aegle hasn’t made a decision on the battery capacity of the device, but the team is aiming for a battery life of between 20 - 24 hours. "We think that a device like the Arc can change how home care is delivered," states Sitko. "We could improve it drastically in a way that remains very simple and easy."

Furthermore, the Arc has potential applications outside the medical field. Nowadays, many athletes use vitals-monitoring devices in order to keep track of their fitness levels as they progress through a training regime. The Arc presents a comfortable, non-restrictive option for tech-orientated fitness enthusiasts, potentially allowing consumers to get the most out of their training without the feeling of being weighed down or restricted.

The second piece of equipment used by the team, the Lab Box, is a joint venture between team Aezon and Biomeme. The Lab Box serves an alternate function to the Arc, carrying out specific tests on biological samples such as a patient's blood or urine. Discussing the capabilities of the Lab Box, Rens states that the device "does the same thing that a huge benchtop piece of equipment that costs tens of thousands of dollars in a lab does, and it does it with a device that’s about the size of your iPhone, except maybe three inches thicker."

What makes the Lab Box truly impressive is its ability to carry out qPCR analysis. In essence, qPCR testing works to amplify DNA, using a primer in order to detect and isolate the DNA sequence of a disease. Lab Box could then detect how much of this DNA sequence is present in the sample and make a diagnosis based on this analysis, informed by the data captured by the Arc.

The final aspect of team Aezon's tricorder is the smartphone app. As soon as the app is opened, it begins collecting vitals data whilst prompting the user to input any symptoms they may be experiencing at the time. Based on the data received, combined with the user-entered symptoms, the app will then suggest a preliminary diagnosis. This process is aided by Symcat cloud API, which uses big data to compare the patient's symptoms to those of thousands of other users. The app may then direct the patient to carry out a more specialized test via the Lab Box, or possibly advise a hospital or pharmacy visit.

The possible uses of such a system are myriad. One lifesaving application envisioned by Sitko involves utilizing the Arc as a monitoring system in care for the elderly. Currently-used warning systems such as panic buttons create a safety net, allowing users to simply press an alarm and summon help if they fall or injure themselves. The nightmare situation occurs when an individual is too injured or panicked to press the button. Aegle believes that the Arc device represents a more comprehensive and reliable monitoring system. "[The Arc] can be used in the home, nursing homes, and elderly-care facilities ... we think that we could make an impact there," elaborates Sitko.

The device could also be put to great humanitarian use in third world countries such as Rwanda, where the majority of healthcare is administered by community health workers with only the most basic of training. If a diagnostic system such as that being developed by Aezon could be utilized in such a setting, the accuracy and range of the diagnoses and therefore quality of treatment, could dramatically improve. Rens elaborates on the point, stating that "having a device which is mobile, inexpensive and accurate, it would change the way that medicine can be practiced in the developing world."

In order to make the technology applicable in the types of critical situations mentioned above, the team is designing the system with accessibility at its core. For example, the Arc requires no calibration or even switching on – it simply detects when a patient is wearing it, and immediately begins to record the user's vitals.

"With the app, we are using the same approach," states Rens. "We are trying to limit the amount of decisions that the user actually has to make, we don't want them to have to decide what test to take. We are going to tell them based on information that we have already collected."

Once completed, it is hoped that the system will be usable with essentially zero training, by anyone anywhere. "If someone's grand kid can't figure this out, then we've failed" states Sitko, whilst Rens concludes "and if that kid's grandmother can't figure it out, then we've also failed."

Sources: Aezon, Aegle

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