Researchers set to boldly go into new areas of medical sensing with multicorder

Issued: Thu, 17 Oct 2013 16:33:00 BST

A new research project is aiming to develop a Star Trek-style ‘multicorder’ capable of quickly providing medical staff with accurate information about their patients’ condition.

A team of engineers, chemists and biochemists have received a grant of £3.4m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for four years of work to develop the system, which will take the form of a handheld device.  

The multicorder will house a selection of custom-engineered sensors to provide a snapshot of an individual’s current condition by measuring around 100 of their body’s metabolites taken from a sample of blood or saliva. The resulting picture of a patients metabolome – the unique balance of their body’s metabolites - will provide instant feedback on their condition similar to diagnoses made by doctors using the famous tricorder device in the Star Trek films and TV series.

The project draws from established expertise at the Universities of Glasgow and Newcastle, and will involve a number of industrial partners.

Professor David Cumming of the University of Glasgow’s School of Engineering, who is leading the project, said: “Diagnostic devices such as pregnancy tests or glucose monitors, which provide rapid feedback for users, have been in use for decades. The multicorder device we’re working on will be capable of providing similarly rapid results but with the capability to diagnose a much wider range of conditions.

“What we’re hoping is that we’ll be able to replicate the capabilities of a whole lab in a single handheld device, making it much easier for doctors, paramedics and other medical professionals to make effective diagnoses. For countries in the developing world where access to laboratory tests can be limited, multicorder technology could mean the difference between life and death for patients.

“It’s also possible that, as the technology becomes more widespread, versions could be made available for consumer use to help aid home diagnosis.”

The multicorder sensors will be built using complementary metal oxide semiconductor (CMOS) technology, an immensely versatile platform which is commonly used in products including digital cameras. More recently, CMOS has been also been used to develop the ion sensitive field effect transistors used in systems used to sequence the human genome.

Professor Cumming added: “The team working on the project, both in Glasgow and Newcastle, has experience in developing much of the technology which the multicorder will rely on. Here in Glasgow, we also have access to the University’s world-class James Watt Nanofabrication Centre, which will allow us to fabricate and modify parts for the multicorder much more quickly and effectively than relying on third-party suppliers.

“We’re also interested in looking at the possibility that we could use information on a patient’s individual balance of metabolites to guide the development of medication which would be tailored to be optimally effective in treating their symptoms.”

The team hope to have developed the integrated circuits which will underpin the technology within two years. The remaining two years of the grant will be spent on research to determine how the system can be used most effectively in the field.

The industrial partners involved in the project are Cambridge Life Sciences Ltd, SR Microelectronics Limited (UK), Procter and Gamble UK, Texas Instruments Ltd, Nanoink Inc, Selex-Galileo and XStalBio. The Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Public Health England are also providing support.