Monday

19th Feb 2018

Focus

Belgian trades EU for US to build Star Trek medical device

  • Start Trek fans will know about the Tricorder, a handheld device used by Captain Kirk and company (Photo: Star Trek Mark X Medical Tricorder)

Start Trek fans will know about the Tricorder, a handheld device used by Captain Kirk and company to, among other things, scan the biological state of the living creatures they encountered on their interplanetary voyage.

Today, almost 50 years after the science-fiction series first aired on American television, the device is close to becoming a reality.

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“It really is very difficult to build, but not impossible,” says Walter De Brouwer, the founder and CEO of Scanadu, a start-up company based in Sillicon Valley working with the NASA space agency to build a 21st-century Tricorder, to be put on the market by 2014.

The Tricorder, he says, will be not much more than a smartphone extension and be able to monitor and diagnose your health conditions without needing blood, urine, saliva, physical contact or even cooperation from the patient.

Instead, the Tricorder works with light, says De Brouwer, without going into details. “Advanced optics. Everything is light.”

It is one of many new futuristic health devices that are making the rounds at future-of-healthcare conferences like TEDMED or FutureMed and, we are told, will be here rather sooner than later. “There is an explosion of new devices,” says De Brouwer.

Not made in Europe

But like the conferences, it seems most of the devices are either American-made or designed. And not European. De Brouwer himself, a Belgian national, recently moved to California in order to start work on the Tricorder.

“People who decide to live in Silicon Valley are larger than life,” he says. “They are romantics, not afraid to take risks or to fail.”

But most of all, he says, they are happy to listen to other people's ideas "with a willing suspension of disbelief,” citing English 19th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

The advent of the Tricorder came a step closer in January when Qualcomm, an American telecommunications company, launched a $10 million prize for whoever builds the device first. De Brouwer is officially competing.

"In Europe," he says, "people are of the extreme cautionist school - they only do something if it has proven to work in the US.”

De Brouwer takes the example of the VScan handheld ultrasound device, recently presented by General Electric. “In Europe, people would say: It can’t be done. In the US they say: It will be done.”

And what about the Tricorder? Would it have been possible to build in Europe?

“No,” says De Brouwer. “First in the US, then in Europe.”

E-health business is good business

The e-health industry is growing fast. Ten years ago, it was "microscopic". But over the last couple of years, it has "exploded". Today, it is the third largest industry in healthcare.

Putting the 'e' in e-health

The 'e' has become a familiar sight before words like book or commerce, while health has long been spared the token affix of the digital age. But now e-health has arrived and seems set to revolutionise traditional healthcare.

Feature

Medical technology: Advancing too fast for its own good?

The rapid advancement of medical technology has contributed to people living longer, healthier lives but consumer and campaign groups say devices should come under more scrutiny before they are used on patients.

The EU and e-health: a European disease

Healthcare, strictly speaking, is none of the EU’s business. On e-health, therefore, much of the Brussels oeuvre consists of communications, recommendations, action plans, conferences and the odd pilot project. But even that seems too ambitious.

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The town hospital of Guriceel, Somalia, is understaffed. The doctors who once worked there have all but fled the fighting that mars the country since decades. Those who remain often lack in education. But they do have an internet connection.

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Three Dutch MPs, on behalf of 26 national parliamentary chambers across the EU, are demanding more transparency. 'The Eurogroup is the most opaque of them all,' complained Dutch MP Omtzigt.

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