It’s a laid back Friday evening in San Jose, but judging by his huge grin and enthusiastic handshakes, Dr. Basil Harris is as excited as can be.
Harris has just arrived from the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE awards ceremony in Los Angeles, where he and his team were announced as winners of the grueling five-year competition. In what could be considered a victory tour of sorts, Basil and his brother and co-inventor, George, made a stop in the Bay Area to show off their winning device before heading home to Philadelphia.
The event wasn’t a medical conference or technology symposium, however. Rather, it was a media welcome reception for the annual Silicon Valley Comic Con. Alongside Star Trek celebrities like William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols, Harris was invited as a guest to spend a few hours demonstrating his own contribution to Star Trek. From Harris’ big smile, you could tell that he was proud of his team’s accomplishment and enjoyed sharing it with the press. But the big highlight for Harris was when the show’s owner, Apple co-founder and tech legend Steve Wozniak, arrived to meet the guests. Excited, nervous, and a little starstruck, Harris gave a quick demo of DxtER to “the Woz,” even jokingly blaming his increasing heart rate readings on “the Woz’s” presence.
The multi-year Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition kicked off in 2013 and sought a solution that would integrate the latest in wireless sensors, medical imaging, microfluidics, and cloud computing into a device that could allow a user to self-diagnose health conditions anywhere, thus lowering the constantly-increasing time and costs of healthcare. The competition started with a field of 34 teams of clinicians, engineers, and health experts from all over the world. That number eventually narrowed down to the second-place winner, team Dynamic Biomarkers Group out of Taiwan, who won $1 million for their “DeepQ Kit” device, and Harris’ team, who took home $2.5 million for DxtER.
Dr. Harris shows off the orb-shaped digital stethoscope, one of four components of DxtER.
To Boldly Go
A Star Trek-themed competition was a natural fit for Harris and his team, who were already science fiction and Star Trek fans.
“Being fans played a big part in getting interested in this project. It is just so cool to play even a little role in bringing the medical Tricorder from Star Trek to life,” Harris says. His team was appropriately named Final Frontier Medical Devices, a reference to the description of space used in Star Trek’s opening narration.
Aside from being a Trekkie, Harris is a practicing emergency physician at Lankenau Medical Center, just outside of Philadelphia, and much of the approach to DxtER’s design and functionality he credits to his experiences in the ER.
“We first recreated the diagnostic process as performed by physicians in an actual medical encounter,” says Harris. “Only after we had that built and validated with real medical data did we start building hardware.”
He believes it was this approach, which also spurred development of DxtER’s artificial intelligence engine, that set the device apart from the competition.
Harris believes strongly that medical technology design as a whole should start with input from doctors.
“Practicing clinicians and those active in all areas of clinical care who work on the front line of patient testing and clinical care are critical players in advancing new technologies,” says Harris. They are uniquely positioned to fully understand the challenges posed by providing real-time quality results in the face of diminishing resources and pressure on turn around times.”
Dr. Harris demonstrates DxtER for Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
The Best Crew in the Fleet
For Harris, success also hinged on forming a unified team with a common vision of his team. Many people in the DxtER team are family members who bring diverse skills to the table. Co-inventor and brother George is a network engineer, another brother, Constantine “Gus” is a practicing urologist and electrical engineer, and sister, Julia is an expert in health policy.
“If you have a truly symbiotic team, you can build a group with an incredible amount of trust,” Harris explains. “Our people were all sergeants, not privates or generals. Everyone respected and held onto the understanding that, when a task was assigned to someone, that person could solve and complete that task and any related issues that would crop up.”
Better Than Sci-Fi
DxtER consists of a system of non-invasive sensors: an orb-shaped digital stethoscope, an array of ECG sensors that sticks to your chest, a spirometer to measure lung function, and a finger probe that non-invasively measures glucose and can perform other blood tests. All the sensors pair with an app that guides the user through using each sensor and can diagnose and interpret a defined set of 13 health conditions while continuously monitoring five vital health metrics.
“DxtER is more advanced than the Tricorder from the Star Trek series,” Harris says. “In the TV series, the Tricorder was used by the ship’s doctor, Leonard “Bones” McCoy, to obtain vital signs and other information. He would then interpret that information to come up with a diagnosis. In the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE contest, we had to do the same thing, plus include the doctor into the device!”
To accomplish this, DxtER’s AI-based engine would learn to diagnose medical conditions by integrating knowledge from clinical emergency medicine with data analysis from actual patients.
While the competition portion of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE may be over and the $2.5 million prize awarded, work on DxtER is far from complete. The device will continue to undergo development with support from the FDA and other regulatory bodies.
“We put the best stuff we could into the prototype demo kits for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, but our next generation sensors are already in testing,” Harris says.
Harris hopes that the first production-grade components will be approved and available for sale in about two to three years. In addition to commercialization, DxtER will also be used as part of a public health collaboration with a hospital in Mozambique, Africa and other developing countries. Harris has also brought DxtER back to Lankenau Medical Center, where his own patients can test the device and offer their input.
DxtER can diagnose and interpret a defined set of 13 health conditions, while continuously monitoring five vital health metrics. “It’s more advanced than the tricorder from Start Trek,” Harris says.
Tricorders for Everyone
Fifty years ago, Star Trek aired on television and gave viewers a glimpse of what the future might look like. Few probably could have imagined that 2017 would be the year where the idea of the Tricorder would start to move from the realm of science fiction to science fact. At the speed that technology is advancing, the next fifty years of medicine might look even more similar, or perhaps vastly different, than the future that Star Trek predicted.
“Tricorders of all types for everyone!”, Harris predicts when asked about what the next fifty years might bring. “Personal in-home Tricorders, public kiosk Tricorders, emergency Tricorders, rugged wilderness Tricorders.”
But Harris stresses that the Tricorders’ utility will largely depend on input from health professionals.
“This technology is going to happen whether the clinicians are involved or remain on the sidelines. But we need clinicians to guide the development and direct the conversation. The clinicians understand the importance of obtaining real and reliable data. We need to demand that devices coming to market deliver worthy medically significant data. The more robust the technology is, the more likely it will be adopted into practice. We’d love to have more people in this space, innovating, and thinking about how to make these products better.”