May 1, 2008

Real Trekkie Tricorder Invented

New handheld medical scanners coupled with regular cell phones
resemble "Star Trek" tricorders and could see what ails you with a push
of a button.

The invention, using off-the-shelf cell phone technology, would
allow medical scanners could boldly go where none have gone before - to
the aid of the roughly three-quarters of the world's population
currently without access to ultrasounds, X-rays and other imagers used
for everything from detecting tumors to monitoring fetuses.

In addition to offering medical scans in developing nations, the
"could find their way in ambulances, or rural clinics," said
Boris Rubinsky, a professor of bioengineering at the University of
California, Berkeley.

Medical imagers are typically bulky combinations of scanners,
processors and video monitors. Rubinsky and his colleagues instead
physically separated these components, so the most complicated elements
of imagers - the powerful computer processors - can reside at a remote
central location.

The researchers next devised a simple portable scanner that could
plug into a cell phone. The phones transmit the raw scanning data to
the processors, which create images to relay back for viewing on the
cell phone screen.

Cheaper approach

The surprisingly simple setup is described in the April 30 issue of the journal PLoS ONE.

The scheme would significantly lower the cost of medical imaging because one processor facility could serve multiple imagers.

"You could be out in the middle of a remote village and still have
cell phone access," said researcher Antoni Ivorra, also at Berkeley.

The portable scanner was hooked up to a cell phone with a USB cable
and tested on a gel-filled container that simulated breast tissue
afflicted with a tumor. Diseased tissue conducts electricity
differently than healthy tissue does. The image that was sent back had
the simulated tumor clearly visible onscreen.

Simple and flexible

These devices could work with any cell phone that can send and receive pictures or audio and video clips.

"The size of the data in the study was only six kilobytes, which is
ridiculously small," explained researcher Yair Granot at Berkeley. "A
one sentence, text-only e-mail message is bigger than that."

Rubinsky noted that "people are able to watch full movies on their iPods" so cell phone screen sizes should not be a major impediment.

In the future, ultrasound scanners could also couple with cell
phones. Just the ultrasound scanner "might cost about $1,000, while a
whole ultrasound machine with all the other components might be about
$70,000," Rubinsky told LiveScience. "We could take medical imaging and possibly benefit the entire world."

Simply donating existing medical scanners to the world's poorest regions is not a viable, long-term solution, Rubinsky said.

"More than half of the medical equipment in developing countries is
left unused or broken because it is too complicated or expensive to
operate and repair," he explained. "We set out to develop something
that locals could sustain on their own, as well as something that is
relevant to local economies and technologies."

Broad implications

These portable scanners "could open up whole new avenues of health
care for the developing world," Rubinsky said. "Health professionals in
rural clinics could affordably get the tools they need to properly
diagnose and treat their patients."

Although diagnosis and treatment of roughly one-fifth of all
diseases can benefit from medical imaging, "this advancement has been
out of reach for millions of people in the world because the equipment
is too costly to maintain," Rubinsky said. "Our system would make
imaging technology inexpensive and accessible for these underserved

The scanners could have broad applications in the developed world, too, he said.

"Health professionals in rural clinics could affordably get the
tools they need to properly diagnose and treat their patients,"
Rubinsky said. "If you had a car accident, you could put a cap on the
hat of the victim in the ambulance, and before the ambulance even gets
to the hospital, all the information can go through the cell phone,
maybe to spot if that person has internal bleeding in their head."