Anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Star Trek knows that when a crew member is ill, Dr. McCoy is able to use his medical tricorder to scan the patient and diagnose diseases or collect bodily information. Real-life medical scanners have long been a science-fiction standard, but the geniuses at the CSA (The Canadian Space Agency) are on the verge of making it a reality with the Microflow, a gadget that is capable of offering “real-time analysis of everything from infections, to stress, blood cells, cancer markers, and [it] could even be used to test food-quality levels here on Earth.”
The Microflow is a miniaturized version of a flow cytometer (a common research or clinical laboratory instrument used for a range of bioanalysis and clinical diagnoses). It has been designed by the CSA to spot cells and biological molecules rapidly by using optical fiber-optic technology to detect them in a sample of liquid as they pass single-file in front of a laser–all within 10 minutes. The different detectors are positioned at the point where the stream meets the laser and are able to analyze the physical and chemical properties of molecules or cells in the sample.
Currently, most cytometers weight a couple of hundred pounds and are as big as three large laser printers. As such, they are not the most practical devices especially for work in space. The Microflow weighs less than 22 lb (10 kg) and is around the same size and weight as a toaster. Thanks to its compact dimensions, the Microflow is ideal for work on the International Space Station and for transport into orbit where space is a rare commodity.
The Microflow will be put to the test on the ISS during CSA Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s six-month mission. If the trial goes well, then it is expected to revolutionize how astronauts are able to diagnose and treat themselves and others throughout long-duration missions. The device also has benefits here on Earth as it would allow those in remote communities to be tested quickly for things like infectious disease, thereby reducing healthcare costs. It might also help reduce travel for medical analysis by testing people in their home communities, as well as allow for food and agricultural processing plants to run on-site quality-control inspections and tests.