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Hopkins student team selected in competition to build 'Star Trek'-like device

A team of Johns Hopkins University undergraduates was named a finalist in a competition to build a real-life version of the tricorder, a fictional device used on the TV show "Star Trek" to diagnose health ailments.

The stakes are high — the Hopkins team could win a portion of a $10 million prize sponsored by wireless communications company Qualcomm and end up with a device that could be sold for medical use. But the competition for the Qualcomm Tricorder Xprize is fierce. The Hopkins team is the only undergraduate group, and it faces nine other teams from around the world, including from India, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

"It's just a crazy, crazy challenge," said Tatiana Rypinski, the team leader and a senior biomedical engineering major from Rockville. "You don't get an assignment like that in school to build something so challenging."

The teams are tasked with developing a hand-held device that enables users to self-diagnose 12 conditions including diabetes, pneumonia and urinary tract infections. They must choose three "elective" conditions the device can diagnose — the Hopkins team picked mononucleosis, strep throat and HIV. The device must also be able to measure five vital signs including blood pressure and heart rate.

"Very few methods exist for consumers to receive direct medical care without seeing a health care professional at a clinic or hospital, creating an access bottleneck," Qualcomm officials said in describing the need for the competition. "Despite substantial investment to improve the status quo, even average levels of service, efficiency, affordability, accessibility, and satisfaction remain out of reach for many whom the system was intended to help."

The Hopkins team, which is working with the school's Center for Bioengineering Innovation & Design, created a three-part device, Rypinski said. Users type symptoms into a smartphone app that connects wirelessly with one device that provides a list of suggested tests the user can take to reach a diagnosis. That device uses swabs or blood samples. A separate device, worn around the neck, measures vital signs.

The team thought creating one device would make it too heavy, and it seemed unnecessary to combine the two functions, Rypinski said. The competition requires that the components be no heavier than five pounds.

The team, called Aezon, raised about $5,000 this year to support the project and uses Hopkins labs. They also are partnering with Aegle, an Aegon spinoff that is developing the wearable device to measure vital signs, and Biomeme, a Philadelphia-based firm that is developing a smartphone-linked DNA testing device.

On "Star Trek," the tricorder device appeared in several different series including the original, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Star Trek: Voyager."

Rypinski, 21, said she learned about the challenge in 2012 from an article in Wired magazine and was confident she could find other students who would be interested. She eventually built a team of 15 to 20 students in various majors, some of whom have graduated since joining the competition. Rypinski said she watched "Star Trek" before and knew what a tricorder was.

"Definitely if you're an engineer you like to design and build things," she said, "and this is quite a challenge to build."

The deadline to submit a final version of the device is in March after which it will be tested against other devices in the competition. The winner will be selected in early 2016.

If Aezon wins, Rypinski said, the team hopes to put the money toward refining the device with the goal of having it approved for medical use.

cwells@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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