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Star Trek Tricorder Moves Closer to Reality

Science Fiction Becomes Science Fact
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Assessing someone's medical status was easy on the TV series, Star Trek. Dr. McCoy just waved his tricorder over the patient, and any broken bones, concussions or internal bleeding were instantly revealed.

While in real life, ultrasounds and x-rays help physicians diagnose everything from breast cancer to kidney stones, those scans can not reveal what is inside the masses. Having that immediate knowledge could help millions of patients avoid unneeded stress and surgery.

Purdue University Biomedical Engineering professor Ji-Xin Cheng has devoted his life’s work to technology that will be able to provide that internal view. He and his team have developed several medical tools that help diagnose patients using sound and light. “Eventually we want to make a device like the tricorder in Star Trek," he explains, "so our dream is to make a movie into a real practice.”

Label-free imaging

In conventional medicine, surgeons must either cut out suspect tissue for analysis, or risk exposing already very sick patients to fluorescent dyes and nanoparticles. These "labels" light up lesions so doctors can study them.

Ji-Xen Cheng's team has been shedding new light on cell biology using the advanced spectroscopic imaging tools developed in their lab. (E.Celeste)
Ji-Xen Cheng's team has been shedding new light on cell biology using the advanced spectroscopic imaging tools developed in their lab. (E.Celeste)

Team member Jesse Vhang explains their technique - called "label-free imaging" - eliminates more invasive or toxic procedures by bouncing light off molecules in the tumor.

“We do not need a label," he points out. "We can basically look at the vibrations of the molecules and these vibrations can generate signals in our microscope.”

Those vibrations serve as molecular fingerprints, unique to each type of molecule. The patterns can be mapped to identify such things as lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids. In essence, the devices give doctors the ability to look at a patient in three instead of two dimensions.

Vhang says, “For example we could use this to image biological samples from patients. We can see if the patient has cancer, which usually accumulates a lot of lipids.” The label-free imaging devices have shown promise in identifying kidney, liver, and breast cancer.


One device, the MarginPAT, funded by the National Institute of Health, will also help breast cancer surgeons remove tumors more efficiently and accurately. In the United States, about a quarter of all breast cancer patients must undergo a second surgery to remove missed malignant cells. The developers expect MarginPAT will dramatically reduce that number.

Cheng and his partner, Dr. Pu Wang, founded Vibronix to manufacture the device. Wang says it could revolutionize medicine around the world.

"I think this will be good in mainland China where medical practice is not as good as the tier one hospitals in the big cities or aboard. They will be able to use the setup to provide the same surgery as the big city doctors."

If all goes as planned, the MarginPAT will be on the market within three years and several more of Cheng’s label-free imaging devices will not be far behind, making his dream of a real Star Trek tricorder one step closer to reality.