Gene "Rusty" Kallenberg, MD, is leading the physician oversight team for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE for which UC San Diego Clinical and Translational Research Institute (CTRI) has been selected as the testing site.
Taking Up the Tricorder Challenge in the Spirit of 'Bones'
March 19, 2015 | Patti Wieser
Working on the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is, well, a bit infectious.
"Star Trek is one of the things that tugs on the heart strings of many around the world and I'm not immune to that," said Gene "Rusty" Kallenberg, MD, Professor and Vice-Chair, Department of Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego School of Medicine.
Kallenberg is leading the physician oversight team for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE for which UC San Diego Clinical and Translational Research Institute (CTRI) has been selected as the testing site. Inspired by the medical tricorder in the Star Trek TV series and movies, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is a global competition sponsored by the Qualcomm Foundation to develop a consumer-friendly, mobile device capable of diagnosing and interpreting 15 physiological conditions and capturing vital health metrics. Ten teams from six different countries have been selected as finalists. As part of the final testing round, teams will compete in both diagnostic experience evaluations and consumer testing, beginning this summer. The final judging and awards ceremony will then take place in early 2016 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Star Trek TV show.
"We are very excited to partner with UC San Diego on this important stage of the competition," said Grant Campany, Senior Director, Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. "Our finalist teams are developing real medical Tricorder devices that must diagnose 15 medical conditions and capture five vital signs, but the submissions must also be packaged in a consumer-friendly manner. Therefore, this final testing phase is critical in seeing how consumer testers recruited by UC San Diego respond to the overall experience."
From left to right: Dustin Lillie, MD, Amy Leu, DO, and Benjamin Johnson, MD.
In his Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE role, Kallenberg is enlisting the support of physicians in the recruitment of consumer testers for the experimental devices. To help him, he assembled a physician oversight team, made up of UC San Diego physicians Dustin Lillie, Benjamin Johnson, and Amy Leu. Consumer testers are volunteers with one or more of the 15 conditions who will test the devices and provide feedback via surveys. Kallenberg is confident the project will attract physicians and consumer testers alike.
"It's intriguing, intellectually challenging, and very much on the cutting edge of healthcare technology for enabling self-assessment, self-diagnosis and self-monitoring," Kallenberg said. "A tricorder could empower patients."
The physician oversight team first had to ensure there was enough epidemiological data to support the ability to find an adequate number of consumer testers. "Having enough people is the biggest challenge," Kallenberg said. Cases for acute conditions such as pneumonia will come from day-to-day acute care settings and our primary care and emergency medicine colleagues; those for chronic conditions such as diabetes and atrial fibrillation will come from patient databases; and rarer conditions such as melanoma and tuberculosis will come from either specialty colleagues/clinics or county health departments.
The team also is addressing the work flow associated with testing. "How do you talk to potential testers, how do you gauge their willingness to help, and how do you logistically and mechanically carry out the testing?" Kallenberg asked. His team is developing steps for orienting testers to the particular device they will use, having them use it, and enabling them to assess the user friendliness and experience of each. The project, while not actually a research study, has Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval in its capacity for oversight on patient privacy rules for the consumer testers. The testers, who are not research subjects, will be informed they are using prototypes.
The physician oversight team also will be in charge of monitoring any medical emergencies and fielding questions during the testing. "This is a test of the devices' ability to detect conditions which we already know testers have by virtue of other gold standard tests used in clinical practice," said Kallenberg. "They will be testing a specific device to see if it can detect their condition." Some tests will take about an hour; others will require longer periods.
Kallenberg became involved in the project more than a year ago at the request of Erik Viirre, MD, PhD, the medical and technical director for the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE and an adjunct professor in the departments of neurosciences, surgery and cognitive science at UC San Diego. Viirre believed EPIC, UC San Diego Health's electronic medical record system, would be an obvious way to identify patients as potential consumer testers, and asked Kallenberg if he would oversee the testing process.
"One thing about academic medicine is you get approached about interesting projects all the time and the other thing about academic medicine is you often say 'yes,'" said Kallenberg with a grin. "I thought this project was intriguing from the start. Once the oversight team came together and we got into the project, it became infectiously fascinating."
From House Calls to High-Tech Tricorders
Kallenberg hails from a family of physicians. As a youngster, he often accompanied his father, a GP, on house calls in Cincinnati's underserved Over the Rhine district, to poor suburban homes with pot-bellied stoves and dirt floors, and to nursing facilities. Kallenberg described his dad as "very much old-style general practice medicine." Kallenberg also had "bunches of uncles who were physicians and surgeons so medicine was pretty much in the blood," he said. Contemporary relatives with medical connections include Kallenberg's wife and his brother, both physicians; his sister, a nurse/counselor; and in-laws, nieces, and nephews who have direct or indirect links to medicine. Along his path—from growing up in Ohio to receiving a medical degree at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and completing his internship and fellowship training at Harbor-UCLA County Medical Center, to caring for patients, teaching medical students, and supporting an integrative medicine approach—Kallenberg has marveled at medical and technological advancements that improve the lives of humans.
Star Trek: The Next Generation made him a true Trekkie, but since the beginning, the show has sparked his interest in medical technology and created an abiding interest in the medical staff of Starfleet starships. "I've always kept an eye on the physicians in Star Trek," he said. "I use Bones (McCoy), Beverly Crusher, and Voyager's Emergency Medical Hologram Duty Officer as examples of primary care physicians when talking to medical students."
He lauded the philosophy of Star Trek and described creator Gene Roddenberry as a "genius" who tapped into what was truly essential about mankind. "The wonderful thing about Star Trek is that it exemplified what humanity could be and hopefully will become," Kallenberg said. "The series had human, philosophical stories about life, with ethical challenges and conundrums, and wonderful adventures, and they had the timeline for achieving that enlightened state about right, too—the 2400s!"
For Kallenberg and his team, the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is a Star Trek-inspired adventure that just may move the tricorder from science fiction to science reality.
"Wired healthcare is the next step, and the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE is part of that future," Kallenberg said.