XPrize-Winner Bridges Science Fiction and Science

Alumnus Basil Harris, MD, PhD, endured the crucible of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize competition, won it in 2017 through his self-funded, family-based company, and visited Drexel to tell a packed conference room at Gerri C. LeBow Hall about the experience during the Symposium on Noninvasive Medical Technology last week.

Harris’ keynote address was shot through with humor, humility and elaboration for an audience of students largely unfamiliar with the tricorder, a space-age medical tool on the television series “Star Trek.” Harris described the five-year XPrize competition to engineer one as a seemingly endless series of “building and scrapping and building and scrapping” as he and family members developed a hand-held device that can diagnose patient symptoms in real time from their homes.

Basil Harris
Dr. Basil Harris

Their winning prototype, “DxtER,” is a kit containing AI-based tools able to provide robust clinical data that lead to a diagnosis of several common but serious maladies. DxtER is designed to be used by lightly trained practitioners and by patients themselves.

The contest opened in 2012 when Qualcomm, an American multinational company developing next-generation wireless technology, pledged $10M in prize money for the first team that could bridge science fiction and science to bring a product to the table. Over 300 teams from around the world took up the challenge. The highly competitive series of XPrizes, administered by a worldwide non-profit organization, are designed to inspire the world’s innovators to solve societal problems. Other prize categories revolve around global education, ocean health, lunar landings, and oil cleanup.

“These are people who are committed to global-scale impact,” said Harris, an emergency-room physician at the Lankenau Medical Center of Main Line Health here in Pennsylvania. “We came at this project basically opposite from all the other teams. I wanted to build a tricorder that gave me the data streams that I wanted, and teach the device what I do in the ER.

“There’s only so much information you can get from a phone call in the middle of the night,” he added. “Imagine if you were able to get a patient’s hemoglobin count, listen to their lungs, get a reliable temperature. If people had this type of device at home, it would help 90% of the cases that come into the ER. This is the wave of the future.”

Thursday’s Symposium also included a panel discussion on noninvasive technology hosted by M. Brian Blake, Nina Henderson Provost at Drexel, with faculty members from the College of Engineering and the School of Biomedical Engineering. Among them was Kapil Dandekar, professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, who discussed his current research in functional fabrics for biomedical applications.

The event was sponsored by Drexel University and the College of Engineering.

The Gauntlet is Thrown

Qualcomm’s XPrize challenged innovators to will into solid form a device that had previously existed only on “Star Trek.” As used by Dr. “Bones” McCoy aboard the Starship Enterprise, the tricorder diagnosed medical ailments in crew members and aliens alike with a simple wave over the body. To dramatize the science-fiction-becomes-reality nature of their achievement, Harris and his brothers George and Gus posed in Trekie costumes for publicity shots after their prize-winning entry was announced.

According to competition specs, the tricorder had to weigh less than five pounds. It had to diagnose up to 13 common but serious medical conditions such as pneumonia, urinary tract infection, and mononucleosis, among others. And it had to monitor five vital signs continuously, like heart rate and blood pressure—all while transmitting data to medical doctors or emergency room personnel. Harris and his family achieved their win by “breaking down” the conventional diagnostic steps used in doctors’ offices and ERs and coding them into the “brain” of the DxtER system.

“My family, we’re all engineers. We grew up in an engineering household,” Harris explained. He showed photographs of the device being built on kitchen tables and wired by family members who participated in the project. “Along the way, because we were so naïve in our manufacturing, we came up with some pretty cool designs.”

Harris earned his BS in architectural engineering from Drexel’s College of Engineering in ’92; his BS in civil engineering in ’92; and his MS in civil engineering in ’94. He earned his MD from Jefferson University, and his PhD in engineering from Cornell University. Harris and his brother, George, are co-founders of Basil Leaf Technologies, a company focused aptly enough on bringing once-futuristic medical devices to commercialization.

The expert panel, which took place before Harris’ keynote, featured Provost Blake and three professors whose work neatly captures the “noninvasive” theme of the symposium. Dandekar’s “belly band,” for example, is engineered to monitor respiration in babies or the progress of labor contractions through a strip of flexible material worn by pregnant women. His work has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, in addition to seed money from Drexel.

Hasan Ayaz, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science & Health Systems, talked about leading software development for Infrascanner, a portable, handheld instrument that utilizes near-infrared light to detect hematoma in head trauma patients. Infrascanner has been deployed in 42 countries as an effective, field-based method for clinicians to quickly triage head injuries in remote areas, in war zones, or on the sports field.

Wan Y. Shih, PhD, also of the School of Biomedical Engineering, discussed her groundbreaking piezoelectric finger (PEF) breast cancer detector, a low-cost, portable alternative to expensive, painful, hospital-based mammograms. Since 2017, her device has scanned 150,000 women and found 120 breast cancers at a cost of between $1 and $4 per scan.