One step closer to Star Trek’s “tricorder”

A group of businessmen and researchers have designed a new device that may eventually serve as a kind of Star Trek “medical tricorder,” an all in one medical tool doctors can use to scan you and get all sorts of information that normally would take several individual tests.

I did a previous post about possible tricorders in development. And John did a post on Jack Andraka, the gay teen who developed a cheap, quick test for pancreatic cancer.  Andraka has now assembled a team (of two other teens), and they’re working on a tricorder-type device.

Andraka’s device uses infrared (IR) spectroscopy to do an analysis of a sample. Infrared spectroscopy is a technique that can be used to determine the chemical make up of a substance. IR spectroscopy has been used successfully for decades in various areas of science and industry. But this device is small, portable and can easily be used by members of the public without special training.

In this case, infrared radiation is emitted by the device and the component chemicals of the test sample respond to the incoming energy. The patterns of that response allow for the analysis of what the constituents of the sample are. The output from the sample is compared with stored data. When the incoming information matches one (or more) of the compounds on file, identification is made. The unit transmits the information to the user’s smartphone for display. Tens of thousands of compounds have already had their IR “fingerprints” recorded.

This device, named the SCiO, currently has a number of uses. One is determining just exactly what is in the foods we are eating. For the diet-conscious, just how many calories are in that apple (orange, banana, hot dog or other food item.) You can look that information up and you will usually get an average value. One gala apple, medium, might average about 80 calories. But what is “average” as far as size goes? So the apple you consume may have 95 calories and the one I eat may have 73. That’s a small amount, but over the course of a day, and a year, they can build up. What about the foods in the restaurant? What are the calories in that Alfredo sauce? That slice of cheesecake? That Bloody Mary?

Introducing the SCiO.

Introducing the SCiO.

This device can let you know not just what the calorie content is, but what’s in the food or beverage itself. Protein, carbohydrate, fats and other compounds are all measured. They are displayed on the smartphone somewhat like a nutrition label on packaged foods is done. For those counting carbs, the information on the meal is right there. For watching how much fat is in a food, the same holds true. Have an allergy and not sure if the allergen is in a food? Analyze it and find out. So, it’s handy for dieters, foodies, the health conscious and others.

It has other functions, too. It can tell you if your plants might need watering, for example. Don’t know what that liquid is in that unlabeled bottle, this can identify it for you. Not sure which watermelon is the ripest one? Check it with this.

Medically this has one current interesting use. It can determine the ingredients of the pills you’re taking. It is apparently so good at doing this that it can even identify if a medication is generic or the brand name variety.

I thought of another possibility. Many people are now buying prescription medications on the Internet. It’s difficult to determine if these are the real medicines, or who knows what. They be something else marketed as the real thing to scam the consumer. Or perhaps they’re real, but less potent, or contain some adulterant. The same holds true for supplements. Is that fish oil you bought online really fish oil? Does it have mercury in it? Or lead? That can all be determined with IR.

The company also states that it is working on medical applications that may be available in the future. Perhaps measuring blood glucose, at home without drawing blood. Maybe checking blood lipids, again at home, without needing a blood draw. Those are all very interesting possibilities that may be something that this device could be capable of in the future.

Just a few words of caution. While IR spectroscopy is capable of doing these analyses, we only have the developers’ word that this device can do these things accurately and reproducibly. So I’m certainly not recommending that anyone go out and buy this just based on what I’ve seen or what the manufacturer has presented on his website or in his promotional videos. Should the device live up to the manufacturer’s claims, it could prove very useful in a number of respects, just a few of which were outlined above.

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Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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