Beam me up Scotty: Star Trek technology about to become reality

If you’re an avid Star Trek fan (as I am), and even if you’re not (poor culturally deprived person), you’ll be able to appreciate the significance of the latest medical technology breakthrough. Doctors in Star Trek are never without their tricorders,which are very cool handheld devices that can diagnose everything from the common cold to a subdural haematoma. Soon, doctors in rural areas will be able to use their cell phones in a very tricorder-like manner.

A team from the University of Berkeley, California, has broken down bulky medical imagers into their component parts and placed the most complicated elements in one central location. Then, using off-the-shelf cell phone technology, they created a portable scanner that can be plugged into any cell phone capable of sending and receiving pictures. Scanned data is sent to the central location for analysis and diagnosis, and the results are sent back. Practical tests carried out by the researchers found that the entire process uses fewer kilobytes than a single sentence email.

These portable scanners can be used for anything from detecting tumours to monitoring the progress of a child in the womb. Boris Rubinsky, professor of bioengineering at Berkeley, says that big bulky imagers and scanners are often too expensive and impractical to run in most areas of developing countries. The new portable cell phone scanners will play an important role in helping hard-pressed doctors improve their diagnoses and treatment options in even the most trying circumstances. The best part is that it needs only a cell phone signal to work. And where, apart from deep within the depths of an underground cave, can you not get a cell phone signal?

It’s quick and easily affordable, for example, an ultrasound machine costs around $70,000 (AU$ 74,341), but a scanner coupled to a cell phone would cost only around $1000 (AU$ 1,062). Another major benefit is that one central server would be capable of dealing with data from several portable devices, eliminating the need for many machines. As you can see, the savings are enormous, and exactly what developing countries need.

But Rubinsky doesn’t see them benefiting only developing countries; he hopes to see the devices in ambulances all around the developed world as well. Completing scans en route means that diagnosis and treatment could begin that much sooner, and could spell the difference between life and death for many critical patients.

We are fortunate enough to live in a world where science fiction is increasingly becoming science fact. If technology continues to advance at this pace, and scientists continue to take their inspiration from cult TV and books, it won’t be long before we’re traversing the universe with the help of someone who may or may not be named Scotty.

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