Three new Healthcare Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations (IRCs) have been established with the purpose of developing ICT applications that could benefit both healthcare users and those who treat them.
Funding to the tune of £32m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been invested in establishing the three new IRCs.
These IRCs are ‘centres’ spread across ten universities and involving 18 industry and academic partners, where new technology and ICT applications are being developed that specifically sense and determine physical and environmental factors and, based on the data collected, are able to make informed decisions to the benefit of healthcare users.
“As healthcare challenges become more complex, our world-class scientists are finding the next generation solutions,” said David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science. “New British technologies are transforming healthcare and saving lives, for example, in future, our smart phones will tell us when we are ill, controlling the spread of infectious diseases,” he continued.
The three technology areas being developed by each IRC are: Early-warning sensing systems for infectious diseases; Multiplexed ‘Touch and Tell’ Optical Molecular Sensing and Imaging – a fibre-optic device to detect potentially fatal lung conditions, and SPHERE: Sensor Platform for HEalthcare in a Residential Environment – a 24/7 digital home health assistant.
“Designing and integrating technologies that will help clinicians to diagnose and monitor patients is where the cross-disciplinary research we are funding at these IRCs can play a vital role,” said Dave Delpy, CEO of EPSRC.
The IRC involved in developing an early warning system for infectious disease, sets out to use next-gen smart phone technologies to enable doctors to test and track serious infectious diseases – such as new strains of influenza, HIV and MRSA – much earlier than previously.
Low cost, easy to use smartphone-connected diagnostic tests, based on nanotechnology, are being developed which could enable a quick diagnosis of infections in community settings such as GP surgeries, elderly care homes, developing countries or at home. Results are to be sent securely to healthcare systems, alerting doctors to potentially serious outbreaks with geographically linked information.
This IRC sets out to forge critical mass and multi-disciplinary expertise in biomarker discovery, biomimetic capture coatings, nanosensing systems, nanoparticles, microelectronics, microfluidics, wireless networks, data mining and health economics.
The system could also track population-wide outbreaks or symptoms via on-line sources, including Internet searches and social media posts, before people attend clinics or from resource-limited settings.
For the second technology focus – Multiplexed ‘Touch and Tell’ optical molecular sensing and imaging – the IRC intends to form a group of world-class scientists and clinicians to design, make and test a small fibre optic probe.
This probe – deemed a cutting-edge, bedside technology platform – can be inserted into a patient’s lung, blood vessels or other bodily tracts (such as digestive, genitourinary or reproductive ones).
One probe type may allow clinicians to ‘view’ inside the lung, while others will be modified with sensors that can measure important parameters such as oxygen concentration and acidity in both blood and lung in real-time. The probe may also deliver 'smart reagents' that detect specific bacteria and viruses and sense other processes that can damage the lung.
The third focus area – SPHERE – involves creating a home medical sensor system which could detect an overnight stroke, or mini-stroke on waking, by noticing small changes in behaviour, expression and gait.
This system is intended to be general-purpose, low-cost and accessible, using passive sensors which do not require any action from the patient. Although this technology is viewed by engineers and academics alike as the way of the future, many in society might see it as a highly-invasive and undesirable replacement for face-to-face care.
The total investment into the three IRCs is £41m; £32m coming from EPSRC and a further £9m investment from the Universities and project partners. UCL (University College London), Imperial College London and the University of Edinburgh are just a few of those involved in the IRCs.