Basil Harris, MD ’02
Merging Medicine, Engineering, and Design to Revolutionize Digital Healthcare
From left, George, Basil, and Constantine (Gus) Harris. Photo by XPRIZE
By Eugene Myers
In an episode of the 1960s science fiction series Star Trek, Dr. McCoy utters one of his famous catchphrases: “I’m a doctor, not an engineer!” Basil Harris, MD ’02, PhD, happens to be both, which gave him an advantage in bringing McCoy’s “medical tricorder”—a portable diagnostic device—from television to reality.
In January 2012, XPRIZE and Qualcomm announced a global competition to develop a handheld consumer device that enables people to “make their own reliable health diagnoses anywhere, anytime.” When Harris heard about it a year later, he realized that such a device would have to replicate what he does as an emergency medical physician.
“We have to make these quick decisions. We have to make diagnoses with quick streams of basic information,” he says.
Harris has a master’s degree in structural engineering from Drexel and a PhD in engineering from Cornell, where he became interested in bioengineering and modeling medical systems. That led him to SKMC, where he worked on biomechanics with Alexander Vaccaro, MD, PhD, MBA, and Alan Hilbrand, MD, at the Rothman Institute. After graduation, Harris completed a residency at Jefferson in emergency medicine and has worked in the Lankenau Medical Center emergency department since.
Harris needed help to translate his knowledge of the diagnostic process into code for the artificial intelligence he was envisioning, so he recruited his brother George, a network engineer. Though they initially thought it might take “a couple of weekends,” training the AI to make reliable diagnoses turned out to be a lengthy learning process for them as well.
“The AI was really good at picking up some things, like tuberculosis, but it wasn’t as good at differentiating conditions like mono from strep throat and things like that,” Basil says. “So we learned from that and helped the AI grow. And then we put it through some other rigors to let it learn.”
This included withholding information or outright lying about symptoms during test scenarios, to simulate patients who aren’t always forthcoming or well-informed about their health. Like a good doctor, the AI needed to be able to filter through the data and focus on what was important to make an accurate diagnosis.
The prototype DxtER kit included an iPad Mini running a sophisticated diagnostic engine and a collection of noninvasive sensors. Photo: XPRIZE
Harris and his team, Basil Leaf Technologies—a family enterprise that, in addition to George, includes their brother Gus and sister, Julia—named their device DxtER, a mashup of “Dx,” the medical abbreviation for diagnosis, “t” for tricorder, and of course “ER” for emergency room. The prototype DxtER kit consisted of an iPad Mini running their custom app and five Bluetooth peripherals that noninvasively monitor blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate, and temperature in real time.
The team shipped 65 kits to the University of California San Diego (UCSD) for testing along with tricorders from the other six finalists—only seven teams remained from the initial 300 entries. Because one of the key criteria was that the tricorder be usable independently by individuals with no medical knowledge, real patients tried out the devices and even took them home.
The winning product needed to diagnose 13 health conditions—such as mononucleosis, pertussis, pneumonia, diabetes, and hypertension, as well as the absence of a condition—and collect key health metrics, all with a user-friendly interface. Twenty-one judges reviewed data as test users interacted with the devices and graded them on accuracy and overall user experience.
Basil Leaf took first place as the highest-performing team and was awarded the $2.5 million prize at a ceremony in Hollywood on April 12, 2017.
“This really has been an amazing experience. It was a five-year journey, just like the show. And putting this kind of hardware together and having these prototypes—now that the prize is over, the concept is over, the hard stuff is actually beginning,” Harris says.
The next step is getting DxtER to consumers so it can start helping people. In today’s age of fitness trackers and smart watches, Harris believes that people are ready for more information about their health, and that they need to be as informed as possible to be partners in managing it.
“People want this type of information, especially when you’re looking at our noninvasive sensors. People are blown away by it. And they’re like, ‘When can I buy this? Where can I get one?’” Harris says. But he emphasizes that the device isn’t meant to replace doctors and healthcare professionals, but to complement their work: “When this is out there, it’s really going to marry with medical providers and help make their jobs more efficient and help people manage their conditions more efficiently.”
Basil Leaf’s tricorder is undergoing clinical trials and enrolling subjects at Lankenau, with plans to extend it to UCSD, to prove it’s getting reliable information for FDA clearance—essential work that has been accelerated by their prize winnings as well as ongoing support from Qualcomm and XPRIZE.
“We’ve just taken the first baby steps with the AI, with this new technology,” Harris says. “And I’m very excited about the future.”