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Rewriting Life

An X Prize for Mobile Diagnostics

A $10 million prize would go to the first device that can diagnose a range of diseases with the same accuracy as a team of doctors.

Last week, the X Prize Foundation announced a new $10 million contest to develop a portable device that can diagnose a wide range of diseases with the same accuracy as a panel of board-certified physicians.

The details of the contest are still being worked out, but the goal is likely to be a device that can perform a number of diagnostic tests and combine these with artificial intelligence to determine whether a subject has a particular malady. Such a device could help those who lack access to traditional medical services—and streamline access to specialty care in traditional medical treatment.

“Imagine a world where people get funneled to the right part of a complex health system at the right time,” says Eileen Bartholomew, a senior director at the X Prize Foundation. Bartholomew is working on designing the exact parameters for the prize, which will be launched in 2012. “And when consumers get into the health system, they come with data, to understand and guide their treatment.”

Bartholomew says that the contest may involve diagnosing a particular disease or could start with less ambitious challenges, such as performing a single test for a prize in the $1 million range. Winning the whole prize, offered in collaboration with Qualcomm, would likely involve an entry that could combine several complex technologies.

The range of biomedical information that can be monitored quickly is increasing, says Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute. “We can monitor glucose continuously and we can measure heart rate and rhythm remotely,” he says. But, he adds, “we don’t have good ways yet for remote sensing for blood pressure or oxygen saturation.”

Topol says such a prize won’t be won until there is a critical convergence of technology, perhaps involving genomic sequencing and advanced imaging. Nick van Terheyden, chief medical information officer at Nuance Healthcare, thinks that such a convergence might not be too far away.

Van Terheyden says that a doctor would always be involved in some way in patient diagnosis. “This technology wouldn’t be a replacement, but an adjunct: a third party in the room that’s prodding and nudging,” he says. “Clinicians are overwhelmed with the amount of information that is out there.”

The regulatory environment could present problems for any such device. “The Food and Drug Administration has stated that it will not certify tech that makes a diagnosis directly,” said Ross Mitchell, the author of a study published last week that shows that strokes can be diagnosed with the aid of a smart-phone application with the same degree of accuracy as with a hospital computer.

Bartholomew says that because of FDA restrictions, the contest could lead to innovations that might only be used outside the United States.

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