Rethinking Healthcare

Noninvasive Diagnostics: Space science makes Star Trek's Sickbay a reality

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Not exactly a tricorder, but the new medical beds at Leicester University help diagnose diseases by just analyzing your breath, blood flow, and the surface of your body.

The University of Leicester in the UK has developed a hi tech £1 million (about $1.6m) medical suite to diagnose hospital patients, sci-fi style.

The new tech would help assess patients more quickly and speed up the detection of a range of illnesses including infections, heart failure, and cancer. In particular, it’s designed to detect the ‘sight, smell and feel’ of disease without the use of invasive probes and blood tests.

"Dr. McCoy in Star Trek had a tricorder that he waved over the patients to help diagnose diseases," says Paul Monks, who helped develop the facility. "The stage we're at is the medical bed in the sci-fi series, which it tells you how well you are."

Some cool tech found on the space-age converted hospital bed (pictured) at the Accident and Emergency department of Leicester Royal Infirmary:

  1. A mass spectrometer breathalyzer – developed from atmospheric chemistry research – helps make diagnoses based on gases and compounds exhaled from patients. These can indicate asthma, sepsis, and even several types of cancer.
  2. A group of imaging instruments uses space science tech developed for exploring the universe. These include thermal, multi-, and hyper-spectral imagers that look at temperature, color, and light coming from the patient’s body to say something about metabolism. For example, liver disease is linked with yellowing of skin; the tech can also see veins close to the skin’s surface.
  3. And yet a third group of monitors measure blood flow and oxygenation to analyze the heart’s activity and blood circulation in real-time. (Not cool by itself, but it’s never been combined with all this other stuff before.)

"We are replacing doctors' eyes with state-of-the-art imaging systems, replacing the nose with breath analysis, and the ‘feel of the pulse’ with monitoring of blood flow using ultra sound technology and measurement of blood oxygen levels,” says Leicester’s Mark Sims.

In a video on the Diagnostic Development Unit, Leicester’s Tim Coats says: “We’re looking at noninvasive ways of assessing things that, at the moment, we have to use invasive means – like sticking a needle into someone to get a blood sample – to get the same information.”

In the long term, according to Monks, scientists want to develop the ultimate non-invasive diagnostics, reducing “those time-consuming and uncomfortable procedures that patients would have to undertake" and freeing doctors to actually treat people.

Because all those things (and apparently more) can be done in 15 minutes.

Three years were spent creating this sensory suite, and the new facility could be ready to use in 2 weeks. (And in 2019, an international space probe that’s scheduled to arrive on Mars to look for life will employ similar technologies.)

“In the old days, it used to be said that a consultant could walk down a hospital ward and smell various diseases as well as telling a patient's health by looking at them and feeling their pulse,” Sims reminds you.

Via BBC, University of Leicester release.

Image: University of Leicester

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure