Scanning for Life Readings: A Real Tricorder

We may still have a while to wait for our quantum teleporters or warp drives, but another iconic piece of Star Trek tech has just been developed by engineers at the University of California San Diego. The tricorder, that marvel of medical sensor technology, has just found its prototype in UCSD's “chem-phys patch.” The device records electrocardiogram heart signals and tracks levels of lactate, a biochemical that is a marker of physical effort, in real time. It is worn on the chest and communicates wirelessly with a smartphone, smart watch or laptop.

"One of the overarching goals of our research is to build a wearable tricorder-like device that can measure simultaneously a whole suite of chemical, physical and electrophysiological signals continuously throughout the day," said electrical engineering professor Patrick Mercier at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering who led the project. "This research represents an important first step to show this may be possible."

The team has just published their research in Nature Communications.

The chem-phys patch could have a wide range of applications, from athletes monitoring their workouts to physicians monitoring patients with heart disease. It is not the first wearable medical sensor, to be sure, but it is the first to combine information about heart rate and lactate, a chemical signal.

“The ability to sense both EKG and lactate in a small wearable sensor could provide benefits in a variety of areas," explained Dr. Kevin Patrick, a physician and director of the Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems at UCSD, who was not involved with the research. "There would certainly be interest in the sports medicine community about how this type of sensing could help optimize training regimens for elite athletes.”

The patch was tested on three male subjects, who wore the device on their chest, near the base of their sternum, while doing 15 to 30 minutes of intense activity on a stationary bike. Two of the subjects also wore a commercial wristband heart rate monitor. The data collected by the EKG electrodes on the patch closely matched the data gathered by the commercial wristband. The data collected by the lactate biosensor follows closely data collected during increasing intensity workouts in other studies.

"The ability to concurrently assess EKG and lactate could also open up some interesting possibilities in preventing and/or managing individuals with cardiovascular disease," noted Patrick, who is also a member of the Center for Wearable Sensors.

The team's work is not done. Now that they have cracked the chemicals level transmission code, they aim to add other chemical markers, such as magnesium and potassium, as well as other vital signs, into the mix.