Star Trek Tricorder-like device coming soon?

“He’s dead Jim.”

It’s a line made famous by the original Star Trek’s Dr. ‘Bones’ McCoy after he waved the seemingly magical medical Tricorder over someone just blasted by an advanced alien weapon.

Science fiction? Sure, but so were the little discs Kirk and Spock would pop into the Enterprise’s “computer banks” to get information. Remember, the original show aired in the mid-1960s, well before CD-ROMs, much less the World Wide Web. Or how about those mysterious electronic slates Kirk was always signing off on? Someone at UPS must’ve been watching.

But back to the Tricorder. The [National Space Biomedical Research Institute ]( is funding a noninvasive, needle-free system that uses light to measure tissue oxygen and pH as an alternative to needles to draw blood and cumbersome equipment to determine metabolic rate. The “Venus” prototype is being developed by Dr. Babs Soller and her colleagues. It has the capability to measure blood and tissue chemistry, metabolic rate (oxygen consumption) and other parameters.

“Tissue and blood chemistry measurements can be used in medical care to assess patients with traumatic injuries and those at risk for cardiovascular collapse,” Soller, who leads NSBRI’s Smart Medical Systems and Technology team, said in a release. “The measurement of metabolic rate will let astronauts know how quickly they are using up the oxygen in their life-support backpacks. If spacewalking astronauts run low on oxygen, the situation can become fatal.”

Placed directly on the skin, the four-inch by two-inch sensor uses near infrared light (that is just beyond the visible spectrum) to take the measurements. Blood in tiny blood vessels absorbs some of the light, but the rest is reflected back to the sensor. The monitor analyzes the reflected light to determine metabolic rate, along with tissue oxygen and pH.

**Good for more than spacefarers**

Former NASA astronaut and NSBRI User Panel Chairman Dr. Leroy Chiao said Soller’s sensor system and other technologies being developed for spaceflight promise to payoff in many other areas. “Not only is this research going to help future astronaut crews and operations, it has very real benefits to people on the ground, especially to people in more rural areas.”

For example, Soller said Venus would help first-responders get quick feedback on the severity of a person’s injury. “Data can be communicated directly to the hospital. Early access to this type of information may increase a victim’s chances of survival.”

Venus could also be useful to athletes and physical therapy patients to measure metabolic rate and to assist in determining the best level of activity or exercise needed.

Star Trek has been the inspiration, or at least presaged, for a number of tech advances including other work on Tricorder-like devices. Blogger Jay Joshi recently compiled a neat list of “[Inventions Inspired by Star Trek](!851D717EDFF14CEC!5075.entry)”.

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