New medical scanner could surpass ‘Star Trek’ tricorder abilities

Ever since Gene Roddenberry introduced us to the world of Star Trek, we have spent the years since trying to catch up to the technological advances thought up by him and his brilliant creative teams. Now, a new development has a chance to surpass one of those technologies — the tricorder.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health and Penn State's Department of Engineering Science and Mechanics have developed a new a dime-sized chip that uses the interference pattern created by two sound waves to sort a continuous stream of biological cells. This would allow cells of different types to be directed into different channels, and all those separate channels could examined simultaneously to give faster, more accurate medical scans.

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The new chip uses the principle of interference, where two sound waves interact with each other, causing nodes of higher and lower pressure on the surface of the chip. As the biological cells flow across the surface of the chip, they are funneled into these nodes, and by changing the frequency of the waves, more nodes can be created, thus funneling more streams of cells to be analyzed.

According to Science Daily, Tony Jun Huang, a professor of engineering science and mechanics on the Penn State research team, said that this method would also be much less likely to damage cells as they were sorted and examined, would allow for easier examination because the cells would not need to be encapsulated in droplets — as they need to be with current methods — and it would not require the extra safety precautions that current techniques need due to the aerosols they release.

Where this technology will surpass the Star Trek tricorder is in its size.

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"Today, cell sorting is done on bulky and very expensive devices," said Huang. "We want to minimize them so they are portable, inexpensive and can be powered by batteries."

"Eventually, you could do analysis on a device about the size of a cell phone," he added. "It's very doable and we're making in-roads to that right now."

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