Researchers at the University of Glasgow have developed a small handheld device that can scan for biomarkers to quickly and easily diagnose people with certain diseases and illnesses. Inspired (as always) by Star Trek's tricorder, the new "multicorder" is designed to help doctors track the presence or progression of an illness from just about anywhere.

At the core of the new device is a complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chip. Most people might associate these chips with cameras, but these effective and inexpensive sensors pop up in all kinds of imaging devices.

In this case, that sensor is divided into four reaction zones each on the lookout for different metabolites – biomarker molecules found in samples of body fluids like urine or serum. By looking at the presence and quantity of these metabolites, doctors can diagnose certain illnesses in a patient.

"We have been able to detect and measure multiple metabolites associated with myocardial infarction, or heart attack, and prostate cancer simultaneously using this device," says Samadhan Patil, lead author of the study. "This device has potential to track progression of the disease in its early phase and is ideally suited for the subsequent prognosis."

A key part of the design of the multicorder is portability. The CMOS chip measures 3.4 x 3.6 mm (0.13 x 0.14 in) and the whole device fits in the palm of your hand. It outsources its computing power to an Android phone or tablet, which it connects to via Micro USB. And best of all, it can apparently return results in as little as two minutes.

"Handheld, inexpensive diagnostic devices capable of accurately measuring metabolites open up a wide range of applications for medicine, and with this latest development we've taken an important step closer to bringing such a device to market," says David Cumming, principal investigator on the project. "It's an exciting breakthrough and we're keen to continue building on the technology we've developed so far."

Promising as the new device is, it's not the first time scientists have been inspired to build a real-world tricorder. Qualcomm has been running an XPrize competition for teams to come up with medical tricorder-like devices, while others have focused on environmental sensing, even as a way of keeping rogue GMOs under control.

The new study was published in the journal Biosensors and Bioelectronics.

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