When the original series of Star Trek introduced the medical tricorder back in the 1960s, it was utter science fiction. Nobody had any idea how such a handheld device able to diagnose a plethora of medical conditions might become a reality by the 23rd century, much less within a generation or two. But it is a reality, or well on its way into the clinic, and the reason has to do with a remarkable class of molecules called antibodies.
From screening blood for viruses like HIV and hepatitis, to labeling cells and parts of cells, to new therapies designed to find and destroy disease causing microorganisms and cancer cells, designer antibodies have revolutionized the world. Literally millions of different antibodies are used in laboratory research to locate and track various chemical compounds and cells. Antibodies are inside products as mundane as home pregnancy tests. They’re also the killing force molecules of new waves of drugs being developed to destroy cancer cells and to defeat deadly viruses like Ebola.
In one of the most exotic applications, antibodies may eventually be used in a Star Trek-inspired medical “tricorder”. Currently a first generation medical tricorder called Scanadu is under development. Scanadu is a technology feasibility demonstrator and it will be used to monitor patient vital signs, which means the following parameters: heart rate, body temperature, blood pressure, and oxygen saturation (the amount of oxygen carried by red blood cell hemoglobin). This will be accomplished with technologies other than antibodies, but future generation handheld devices may integrate Scanadu technology together with anti-body technologies. This eventually will lead to a handheld device the power of a hospital lab, because antibodies essentially act as tiny hands. Each antibody is specialized to grab onto one thing in particular.
There are three kinds of antibodies that can be made in the laboratory: polyclonal antibodies, monoclonal antibodies, and phage display antibodies. These differ in terms of the methods for making them, but also in terms of their characteristics, and thus how useful they are for certain applications.
Both monoclonal and phage display antibodies have been employed in a project aimed at creating antibody detectors for molecules that we might find on other planets, such as Mars. After scooping dirt
from the surface of an alien planet, a future, robotic space probe may analyze the soil using a device somewhat like another Star Trek instrument – the science tricorder, which was imagined to be similar to a medical tricorder but used to study a range of environments rather than the body. Like future versions of the medical tricorder, a science tricorder would work by running millions of different antibody tests to see if the planetary sample contains any molecules that might act as a “signature” for life.
Within a decade or two, the real-life version of the science tricorder could be on its way for a landing on Mars, or Jupiter’s moon Europa. It will be an exciting moment, but familiar, because by that time the Scanadu medical tricorder, or some similar device, will already be a common site in the office of your family doctor.
Written by David Warmflash
David is an astrobiologist and science writer. He received his M.D. from Tel Aviv University Sackler School of Medicine, and has done post doctoral work at Brandeis University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Johnson Space Center, where he was part of the NASA's first cohort of astrobiology training fellows. He has been involved in science outreach for more than a decade and since 2002 has collaborated with The Planetary Society on studying the effects of the space environment on small organisms.