Swine flu still rumbles on in the background, and it is still dangerous–but could two new inventions revealed this week give us Star Trek-like medical technology to help us combat future pandemics?
Claims that scientists have developed real-life versions of the fantastical medical tricorders wielded by Bones, Beverly and other Star Trek doctors have come and gone before. But the SPTT is a more realistic suggestion. Because, like those sci-fi devices, the Standoff Patient Triage Tool doesn’t require physical contact with a patient to detect pulse, body temperature and respiration. In fact it doesn’t even have to be close–it can do all that medical magic from 40 feet away. It uses laser doppler vibrometry, developed for military purposes, and by sending light signals out to a patient, then assessing the fine motions of the regions of the body like the carotid artery. Sophisticated algorithms then determine exactly what the patient’s status is, in concert with optical and infrared video signals.
It’s still under development at the DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate and it’s not sophisticated enough to do specific diagnoses. Instead the whole purpose is to speed up triage, which is the first stage in assessing a patient’s health, getting it down to about 30 seconds and largely automated. Those saved seconds would be vital in an emergency, and the 40-foot standoff means it could be used in airports to detect ill people before they become a public danger.
Meanwhile the Netherlands company Ostendum has created a device that’s not far from the automatic rapid diagnosis of a tricorder. The device is portable, and it can detect the markers of a virus or bacteria from a sample at the scene in mere minutes, significantly faster than standard techniques.
At its core is a lab-on-a-chip system that draws blood or saliva samples into special sensing chambers via microfluidics. These are coated with specific marker chemicals for particular diseases, and here the virus or bacteria bind with the receptor chemicals. A laser is shone through the chip, and the interference with its beam caused by the binding action gives an extremely precise measure of the amount of activity. Ostendum has developed a working prototype and plans to put it on the market in 2010. But the company’s management claim if they had swine flu antibodies available as markers, the system would be able to assess if a patient was a carrier in moments rather than the hours it currently takes.
Sure, neither of these are quite up to a tricorder’s powers, but imagine them combined into a specialist medical portable computer inside a decade. That would be a powerful tool with which to face the next pandemic.