Star Trek inspired health scanner

How would Martian settlers diagnose illnesses without the luxury of hospital equipment?
19 October 2015

Interview with 

Professor Mark Sims, Leicester University


One of the problems with living in a remote location like mars is how you stayScanner healthy and accurately diagnose health problems. After all, the nearest decent hospital will be over 7 months away. In Star Trek, they solved this problem with a machine called The Tricorder. This is a small handheld device which scans you and can tell what's wrong. While this is still very much in the world of science fiction, it has served as the inspiration for a device being developed at the University Leicester and this is known as the DDU. This aims to look, smell, and feel a patient to try and diagnose them. Georgia Mills went for a tour with developer Mark Sims...

Mark - The Diagnostics Development Unit is a unit which attempts to do non-invasive diagnosis of disease ultimately. We're doing that through three different methodologies, going back to what ancient medicine did in terms of looking at a patient, smelling a patient, and feeling the pulse of a patient.

Georgia - It smells people, it looks at people. Why is this better than the traditional way of diagnosing illnesses?

Mark - The idea of this is that some tests take hours for the results to come back and you get some information without sticking needles in them, with the complications of infection and stuff like that which aids the clinician in terms of actually doing their work, treating the patient earlier, perhaps ruling out some things, and ultimately, perhaps even diagnosing given conditions. But before we get there, we need to know what a normal human being is and what signals or data you would associate with this each of the different types of measurement for a different condition. The hope is once we know what a normal patient looks like and we know what some of these conditions are like, we can come up with a real firm probability, it's X, Y, Z. We're a few years away from that. At the moment, we're analysing the individual data and we're going to need some help from some mathematicians and artificial intelligence experts in order to put this together and actually get it to work. And become something which ultimately, won't just be in hospitals perhaps in the GP surgery. Perhaps even in a chemist, perhaps even at home ultimately if you get the price of these gadgets down low enough.

Georgia - Can I see some of this in action?

Mark - Certainly can, yes.

Georgia - The DDU is based deep in the hospital where it's been operational for a few years gathering data. It's basically a small cupboard chockfull of expensive looking scanners and monitors designed to look, smell, and feel their patients.

Lisa - I'm Lisa McLelland, the research nurse for the DDU. You're looking at the mass spectrometer which does the smells bit like a sniff of a dog. The compounds that it's actually been picking up is, it has a tendency to be able to pick up cancer and sepsises, infections throughout your breath, just through the molecules that travel around through these two pieces of equipment, breathing in and out pipes, travel all the way back around the machine, and back into the computer.

Georgia - Once you've been smelled to check you're all shipshape, the machine needs to take a look at you. So next stop in the DDU's medical arsenal, we've got the thermal imager.

Lisa - Mark, if you want to put your hand on the wall. So, with the camera.

Georgia - Wow! Okay. We're looking on the back of the camera. There's a screen and you can see this glowing orange handprint.

Mark - You can actually see the temperature difference from my hand on the wall when I remove it. So, that small change in temperature is enough to actually be picked up by modern technology and it's also great in terms of the spatial resolution as well so you can tell fine structure in the skin. You can look at whether people are undergoing shutdown i.e. the blood is retreating into the core. As it does, that's when the classic symptoms are going from fever into the so-called state of sepsis which is severe infection.

Georgia - So, you smell good, you look healthy, the machine still needs to have a good feel.

Mark - Just behind is the bioimpedance thoracic monitor. That actually came out of the space programme. It's developed in the 1960s for the Apollo astronauts to try and come up with a method of actually seeing how well their hearts were beating without lots of sensors. Essentially, what it does is it measures the electrical resistance in your body and that changes as the blood flows around your system basically. By looking at the change in resistance, you can tell how well the heart is beating, et cetera.

Georgia - It seems like some of this kit has already proven its use in space. So, is this what the first Martians should consider taking with them?

Mark - Part of the problem which nobody has really solved or cracked is that if you have a long expedition to mars or wherever in the Solar System, how do you keep your astronauts healthy. What would you if they're non-healthy? The great problem is how do you treat them medically. The nearest hospital might be 100 million miles away or 150 million miles away depending on where you are in the orbit. Astronauts tend to be very, very healthy people. Scott Kelley for example is on the International Space Station. He'll be up there for a year. So a year is probably not an issue, but if you're talking of sending people to mars to form a colony on the surface then who knows.

Georgia - What kind of things - do people get colds in space? What kind of things do you imagine astronauts will be having to deal with?

Mark - I mean, people get colds in space. The body fluid distribution changes, their heart pump and action changes. It looks like viruses and bacteria become more virulent in space for reasons we don't understand. So, certainly infection is a potential problem. On another planet, it might be broken bones. You might even need surgery. People develop conditions which you have to operate on. Otherwise, the only alternative is perhaps a painful death.

Georgia - Are there plans to miniaturise some of this equipment and maybe contain it all in one piece?

Mark - Essentially, yes. The hope is that by studying these patients, you can narrow what you need to look at down. We already know some of the technologies to miniaturise some of those pieces of equipment. The question with miniaturisation is, will it ever be sensitive enough to replace these quite expensive research great pieces of equipment?

Georgia - I guess if you're going to mars, beggars can't be choosers. They don't have a lot of room to work with.

Mark - That's correct. In the spacecraft, you want minimum mass, minimum volume, minimum power. What do you take on a mission to mars? Do you take an x-ray machine, an ultrasound machine, you take some of this equipment or what? Over the next few years, hopefully, that will be sorted out before we send astronauts to the red planet.


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