SEATTLE -- Two of the biggest spenders on global health innovation are hoping about $38.5 million will be enough money to create a modern-day "tricorder" like the ones seen on the Star Trek TV series so real doctors will have a tool for diagnosing patients far from medical labs.
Medical researchers already have developed some of the tests they want to include in the all-in-one device, but more need to be developed, while pulling them together in one battery-powered "tricorder" will the biggest challenge, said Dr. Peter Singer, chief executive officer of Grand Challenges Canada.
No device yet exists that can be brought, for example, into a remote part of Africa or rural parts of the United States and can take samples and analyze them to answer multiple questions without leaving the field.
For example, if a child has a fever, medical field workers can now test her to see if she has malaria, but they can't test her at the same time to see if she has some other illness and won't be able to say exactly which strain of malaria is in her blood.
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Singer's organization on Friday announced almost $32 million in grants to 22 researchers around the world to tackle different pieces of the project, from developing new tests for life threatening diseases to creating technical and clinical protocols that each of the tests would need to meet in order to pull them all together into one device.
The money comes from the Canadian government and Seattle's Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Another $6.5 million will be spent on pulling the pieces together into one device.
Rebecca Lackman, who is in charge of the technical side of the project for Grand Challenges Canada, compared the development process to a software developer creating apps for a smart phone or tablet computer.
Dr. David Goldfarb, a pediatrician at the University of Batswana and McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, explained how this research to develop a quick way to a sample to diagnose will be applied in the clinics he works at in Africa.
Diarrheal disease is the biggest killer of children in Batswana but it can takes days to get confirmation of a diagnosis from the lab and by then it might be too late to save a child, Goldfarb said.
"They're quite sick. If you're waiting two days to find out what the actual cause is, you miss the boat," he said, explaining that doctors do whatever they can while they're waiting for the lab. "We often don't know what we're treating. We kind of treat somewhat blindly."