The levels of metabolites, molecular biomarkers found in our bodies, can offer a powerful insight into our overall health as indicating the risk or impact of conditions and diseases such as cancer, heart attacks or strokes.
Measuring our metabolites for signs of danger or assessing the progress of medical problems is often part of a more sophisticated screening process if a GP considers a patient to be at risk. However, currently, doing so involves bulky and expensive equipment only found in hospitals. Getting results back from the readings this equipment provides is also often painfully slow.
It’s a far cry from the tricorder that science fiction fans might be familiar with from Star Trek. The imaginary handheld device only had to be swiped over a patient before almost instantaneously coming back with a full diagnosis of what ailed them. However, researchers at Glasgow University’s school of engineering are working on a cheap, handheld metabolites monitor they are confident will make medical diagnosis quickly and accurately. Not only does the device, called a ‘multicorder’ closely resemble the Star Trek ‘tricorder’ but it was actually inspired by it.
The handheld sensor and mobile app pairing measures metabolite levels from a fluid sample. The relative abundance or dearth of the molecules provides an impressively accurate diagnosis of overall health and the potential presence of specific diseases or risks.
The multicorder is made possible by a new kind of metal oxide semiconductor chip of the kind often used in imaging technology. Its low cost and has compact size that consists of multiple zones which can read the levels of four kinds of metabolites at the same time. It’s operated through a smartphone or tablet, further reducing the cost.
The research’s lead author, Samadhan Patil, commented on what the team sees as the potential of their multicorder with:
“This device has potential to track progression of disease in its early phase and is ideally suited for the subsequent prognosis.”
This was further reinforced by David Cumming, the project’s ‘principle investigator, who added:
“Handheld, inexpensive diagnostic devices capable of accurately measuring metabolites open up a wide range of applications for medicine, and with this latest development we’ve taken an important step closer to bringing such a device to market. It’s an exciting breakthrough and we’re keen to continue building on the technology we’ve developed so far.”
Even in the modern era, late diagnosis of cancers, heart disease and the heightened risk of a stroke is one of the biggest killers. Portable devices such as the multicorder could make screening for conditions cheap and easy for GPs or even nurses to carry out at local health centres. This would potentially hugely increase the early detection of illnesses and diseases, vital to their eventual cure or control.