While still impressive, the capabilities of early "tricorders," such as the Scanadu and Dr Jansen's tricorder, fall well short of the Star Trek device that inspired them. But new technology to be tested on the International Space Station (ISS) brings the age of instant diagnosis of medical conditions using a portable device a step closer. The Microflow could also make its way into doctor’s offices here on Earth where it might help cut down on the number of follow up visits required after waiting to get results back from the lab.
The Microflow is a miniaturized version of a flow cytometer, which analyzes cells suspended in a stream of fluid as they pass single-file in front of a laser. As the suspended particle passes through the beam, various detectors positioned where the stream meets the laser can analyze the physical and chemical properties of the molecules or cells in the stream. Because they work in real-time, flow cytometers offer diagnosis in just 10 minutes of everything from infections, to stress, blood cells and cancer markers. They can also identify bacterial pathogens in food or water.
Despite the technology first being proposed in the 1950s and their forerunners appearing in the 1960s, modern flow cytometers are generally still only found in labs because they are bulky and can weigh hundreds of pounds – until now.
With the Micoflow, researchers at Canada’s National Optics Institute (INO) have managed to shrink the flow cytometer down to device the size of a toaster that weighs less than 10 kg (22 lb). Tasked with developing a portable technology that worked in space, the INO team needed to find a way to keep the fluid stream from becoming unfocused in the weightlessness of space.
The answer was to suspend a tiny amount of liquid containing the particles to be analyzed inside a small fiber-optic structure that is permanently focused. After the device detects the particles, the collected data is transferred to a USB key for analysis.
A Microflow technology demonstrator will be carried to the ISS by Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut Chris Hadfield in December, 2012. If it functions in space as expected, it will provide astronauts with the ability to diagnose and treat themselves on long-duration missions without having to send samples back to Earth for analysis.
The technology also has obvious applications back on Earth, with the rapid testing of remote communities and disaster sites for infectious and other diseases providing an increased level of care while reducing costs. The INO says the technology could also be used for on-site quality-control inspections and tests in food and agricultural processing plants.
The (mute) video below shows how the Microflow works.