A TEAM of UK scientists has developed space-age technology – similar to that used in Star Trek – to detect illness.
A new hi-tech disease detection facility, created by the University of Leicester, uses technology that could eventually create devices akin to Star Trek’s tricorders, the handheld scanners that the show’s medics wave near a patient to diagnose illness.
These latest developments will be used in Leicester Royal Infirmary’s A&E department and are designed to detect disease without the use of invasive probes, blood tests or other time-consuming and uncomfortable procedures.
The new £1 million-plus facility uses three different systems in combination and could speed up diagnosis.
One group of instruments, which was developed in the university’s Chemistry Department, analyses gases in a patient’s breath.
A second uses imaging systems and technologies – developed to explore the universe – to hunt for signs of disease on the surface of the human body.
The third uses a suite of monitors to look inside the body and analyse blood-flow and oxygenation.
The technologies employed in the new Leicester Diagnostics Development Unit have never before been used in an integrated manner, say scientists, and some were originally developed for use in planetary research.
Professor Mark Sims, the University of Leicester space scientist who led the project alongside Tim Coats, Professor of Emergency Medicine at the university and head of accident and emergency at Leicester Royal Infirmary, said the technology might also be a first step towards ultimately creating devices like those seen in Star Trek.
He said: “What we are developing so far is more like a first attempt at the medical bed in the sci-fi series.
“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 ultrasound technology and measurement of blood oxygen levels.”
Researchers said that many diseases have visible effects that can be measured outside the body, whether it is a change in colour, temperature, or the organic compounds we exhale.
The equipment, it is hoped, can be used in diagnosis of a wide range of diseases from things like sepsis through to bacterial infections such as Clostridium difficile and some cancers.
Professor Sims said his team first linked with health organisations when working on a device for the ExoMars space mission, which will look for organic molecules in samples below the surface of Mars.
University of Leicester researchers from space research, emergency medicine and chemistry, worked with colleagues in cardiovascular sciences; infection, immunity and inflammation; physics and astronomy; engineering; IT services, and the Leicester Royal Infirmary to create the unit.
The researchers are using a £500,000 infrastructure grant from the Higher Education Funding Council along with a contribution from the university to equip the project.