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Johns Hopkins University students, from left, Alex Forrence, Tatiana Rypinski and Neil Rens discuss development timelines for their mobile medical diagnostic system. (Submitted photo)

Medical device contest names Hopkins students as finalists

What happens when science fiction becomes reality?

That’s the $10 million question for finalists in the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition.

Participants in the multi-year international contest seek to develop a consumer-friendly, mobile device (weighing no more than five pounds) capable of measuring vital health signs and diagnosing 15 diseases and conditions.

As die-hard Trekkies no doubt realize, the tricorder challenge was inspired by the device used by Dr. Leonard McCoy in the “Star Trek” series. But the entries are more impressive than the fictional version for one important reason: they work in real life.

Among the competition’s 10 finalists, which were announced Wednesday, is a team of 19 Johns Hopkins University undergraduates who hope their system can beat out entries submitted by older, more experienced engineers or established companies.

The students’ team, called Aezon Health, created a three-part system to solve the challenge. The first part is a wearable device that continuously monitors the user’s vital signs, including blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory activity.

The system also includes the “lab box,” a lightweight, portable device that reads disposable test cartridges. Each cartridge includes tests for 15 medical conditions, including strep throat and urinary tract infections.

The students also developed a smartphone app to gather and analyze all the data generated by the vitals monitor and the lab box. The app uses algorithms to evaluate the vital sign data and symptom information to determine the next step for the user.

Within minutes, user learn their test results and receive advice about whether to contact a medical professional and what kind of further testing is required.

Additionally, user data is securely stored in Aezon’s online “cloud,” where users can view their test results and share them with specified medical professionals.

Organizers of the Qualcomm competition say they hope participants will design innovative products that help usher in an era of consumer-driven health care. For Tatiana Rypinski — Aezon’s 21-year-old team leader — the opportunity to be part of that revolution is what first attracted her to the competition.

Rypinski, a senior biomedical engineering major, said she read about the competition during the summer of 2012, and was intrigued. She rounded up a few classmates and then sent out emails to Hopkins’ entire undergraduate population.

“There was a lot of interest,” she said. “But the people who were really committed are the ones who stuck around.”

The project is no minor commitment. Rypinski said she dedicates “the vast majority” of her free time to Aezon. And, she said, there’s still “an enormous amount of work ahead.”

The final judging round begins in March, when finalists will submit their devices for consumer testing. Winners won’t be announced until January of 2016.

The first place team will win $7 million. The second- and third-place winners will receive $2 million and $1 million, respectively.

Funding is provided by the Qualcomm Foundation, the philanthropic arm of mobile technology company Qualcomm.