X Prize Exec on How Sensing Technology Can Transform Healthcare

Posted by Brian Buntz on March 13, 2013

A panel discussion at SXSW Interactive 2013 titled “Sensor Technologies: The Future of Health?” pondered the role of sensors in tomorrow’s medical technology. Among the panelists was Mark Winter, senior director of the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize and the Nokia Sensing X Challenge, both of which provide big cash prizes for sensing breakthroughs. The Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize has been described as a “$10-million prize to develop a mobile solution that can diagnose patients better than or equal to a panel of board certified physicians.” The Nokia Sensing challenge is designed to catalyze sensing breakthroughs to advance the field of digital health, also possibly supporting the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize in the process. The Nokia prize will ultimately award $2.25 million for those breakthroughs.

On the heels of the panel discussion at SXSW, Winter spoke with MPMN, providing words of wisdom to engineers interested in the next generation of sensing technology.

MPMN: What advice would you give to engineers looking to incorporate new sensing technologies into medical devices?

Mark Winter

Winter: In the mHealth market and also certainly in the emerging sensors space, there is a lack of clear standardization on communication protocols and data formats. I am heartened and interested by seeing things like the Continua Health Alliance trying to break through that and build some standardization so that a whole ecosystem can emerge. I think it is an important step.

Our two competitions focus on two things. One is the propagation of a wide range of different health sensors that can apply to many different kinds of disease states and medical conditions. The second is a device: the tricorder idea that becomes a personal, consumer-oriented interpretive device. In an ideal sense, there should be really great plug and play compatibility between these various sensors and the data they generate.

If I were facing the music in terms of engineering new products, I’d be looking at that because I’d want to make sure that my technology was going to be adaptable and scalable in the marketplace.

MPMN: What is the latest on your two X Prize competitions?

Winter: I am happy to announce we have, at last count, 267 teams that are preregistered or in registration for the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize. 137 teams are in registration for the Nokia Sensing Challenge. Right now we are in registration through September for the Qualcomm competition. The Nokia Challenge is broken into two separate challenges. The first one will have its closing fairly soon—April 5. Awards will be later in the year, around September. About that time the next registration occurs for the second challenge.

We designed this in a way so some of the work product and results of the two Nokia Challenges might rub off on the Qualcomm competition for those teams. We might see some of the Nokia teams actually go to work with Qualcomm teams on their submission. The Qualcomm competition, of course, is much further out. We are looking at an award in 2015 around September. 

One of the themes we are raising with all of these teams is interoperability and the ability to standardize both on the data transport side and wireless side and also on the side of data packaging so it become easy for these devices to interpret. If we can achieve that, we will have done something very special for the industry to help it advance and that is one of our goals.

MPMN: Are there any sensing technologies out there now with promising for medical apps that medical device engineers might not know about?

Sensor technology continues to advance at a rapid clip. Shown here is an example of a recent development: a stretchy sensor that can be applied directly to the skin.

Winter: I would advise people to start directing their attention to the amazing array of new types of clinical evidence and research that is coming out that identify physiological markers in the body that are subject to sensing and diagnostics. One that I have talked about a lot is the pathophysiology of the inner eye. That can reveal tremendous amounts of information with one sweep about the probability of stroke, the emergence of diabetes and prediabetes and other kinds of tough problems. Those problems can be identified by detecting anomalies in the eyes including venous bulging and clots using a variety of technologies that can scan the inner eye. There is probably not a week that goes by when researchers at some hosptial, university, or other research establish have been publishing their results on new ways to detect disease. If engineers could start looking at that information and understanding the methodology that would be required to detect that condition, they could then go to material sciences and electrical engineering sources to see how they could develop microdevices or devices—hopefully noninvasive ones that will identify and measure the probability of disease or its actual presence. I think those are the kinds of things I would love to see the EE establishment looking at with regard to mobile health.

One of the things that people miss is that we already have millions of health “sensors” that are already part of our primary physiology—part of our own neurological system, our own biochemical system. One of the fascinating areas would be to start devising ways to start capturing that information and interpret it. In a way, we are doing that today. A conventional EKG is very much this—it looks at the electrical transports and signals in the heart to detect problems like arrhythmias. But traditionally, that involves a device with a lot of stickers and wires all over your body. The prospect of nanotechnology is that it could actually detect these changes electrically and chemically and report them to a handheld device. That is one of the most tantalizing future aspects of what we are doing today.

Mark Winter was interviewed recently at the Digital Health Summit at CES 2013.

MPMN: As you mentioned, one of the drawbacks to several conventional clinical sensing technologies is that they are cumbersome or invasive to use. What types of noninvasive technologies are you most excited about?  

Winter: We have already seen different kinds of sensors that are going through the GI system at a gross level—I don’t mean that literally. [laughs] For example, one of the things that has been investigated is nondigestible sensors that can identify the presence of colon cancer. I think it is just a matter of time to start moving into the nanospace.

The ultimate goal has to be a largely noninvasive strategy for sensing. When people are not confronted with complex devices or complicated devices they hang on them, but they can have them embedded in their clothing, have them attached to their skin in a fairly invisible form, be able to wear them under their clothing.

There is work going on right now on a noninvasive glucometer utilizing laser light that can basically go through the subcutaneous skin layers and spot blood sugar molecules and count them. And it follows, logically, that we are going to be headed into the bloodstream here with nanoparticles that can look at a variety of potential disease conditions that are buried internally that we could only normally spot with very advanced imaging technologies or other kinds of large scale medical devices.

One of the fascinating problems in all of this is the power requirements for these types of devices: how they communicate, how they avoid imposing their own problems on our physiology with regard to radiofrequency or other kinds of effects they may have on our internal organs, although most of this is going to be very low power.

There is a company working on a way to generate a power source for sensors generating very small voltage directly off of body heat. This can be embedded and stay powered for very long periods of time without the problems of recharging it or having a capacitor that can support it. That is very promising. It is an interesting idea to have a nanodevice with almost a flywheel like mechanism to generate a small current. That would be an extraordinary piece of technology.

MPMN: The Star Trek Tricorder was a device that could detect disease by waving it in front of a patient. To what degree are the entrants in the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize inspired by the depiction of the tricorder in Star Trek?

Winter: I don’t think the tricorder ideal as illustrated in the Star Trek TV program and movies is a model that anybody directly is going to follow. It is really a consumer hook. It is a way for them to understand what this device might be like. I think the types of sensors we are talking about are going to be very different. It is conceivable that we will have things that are hand manipulated that might look at a mole or you may just use the camera phone to determine if you have a skin cancer or melanoma. I think it is more likely that there will be wireless communications to a variety of devices that are attached or connected to you in some way or that you periodically use that will allow and inform the device to communicate to the consumer.

Brian Buntz is the editor-in-chief of MPMN. Follow him on Twitter at @brian_buntz