Mobile diagnostics to test and track infectious diseases are under development at a new IRC at UCL (CREDIT: UCL)

Innovative health technologies get �32m boost

Smartphone tests for diseases, fibre optic probes and in-home sensors to keep doctors in the loop, have received a £32m boost.

The funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council will establish three new Healthcare Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations (IRCs), designed to bring together researchers from different disciplines such as ICT, pathology, electronic and electrical engineering to create innovative new technologies.

The three projects to receive funding are an early-warning sensing system for infectious diseases using a next generation smartphone test; a fibre-optic device to detect dangerous lung conditions or continuously monitor the blood in intensive care patients; and a 24/7 digital home health assistant to monitor conditions like obesity, depression, falls and stroke.

Announcing the projects centres, David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said: “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. As healthcare challenges become more complex, our world-class scientists are finding the next generation solutions.”

Each IRC will be primarily based at one university but the investment, which will be supplemented by a further £9m from the project partners, will be spread across a total of ten universities and involve 18 industry and academic partners.

Dave Delpy, CEO of EPSRC said: “Today’s healthcare challenges are many and complex; 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. EPSRC funds projects that can make a real difference to people’s lives, the efficiency of our healthcare system and to the economy.”

The IRC developing the early warning system will be led by Dr Rachel McKendry at UCL, with the aim of creating a  low cost, easy to use smart phone-connected diagnostic tests based on advances in nanotechnology to rapidly diagnose infections in community settings.

Results, including geographical information, will be sent securely to healthcare systems, alerting doctors to outbreaks and the system will also track reported illness across populations by searching millions of on-line sources including internet searches and social media posts.

McKendry explains: “A new generation of diagnostic test and tracking systems could save millions of people from deadly diseases such as new strains of influenza, HIV and MRSA.

“The revolution in mobile communication, nanotechnology, genomics, and ‘big data’ analysis offers tremendous opportunities to ‘actively’ manage outbreaks and ultimately to prevent infectious diseases. I am delighted to bring together some of the very best researchers in the UK to create innovative 21st century technologies in the battle against infectious diseases.”

Professor Mark Bradley of the University of Edinburgh will lead the IRC developing the Multiplexed ‘Touch and Tell’ optical molecular sensing and imaging device - a small fibre optic probe which can be inserted into a patient’s lung, blood vessels or other parts of the body such as the digestive, genitourinary or reproductive tracts.

The probe will help doctors in intensive care units make rapid and accurate diagnoses of potentially fatal lung complications that are a common problem in ventilated patients.

Using advanced fibre optic technology, micro-electronics and new sensor arrays the team hope to create a novel fibre-based probe that can readily be passed into the gas exchanging areas of the lung and blood vessels of patients, allowing clinicians to both “view” inside the lung and measure parameters like oxygen concentration and acidity.

Bradley says: “This fantastic team of multi-disciplinary scientists and clinicians will work seamlessly together to produce a solution to radically improve how disease is detected, monitored and treated in critically ill patients.”

The final IRC will be led by Professor Ian Craddock of the University of Bristol, to develop a 24/7 digital home sensor system to monitor the health and wellbeing of people with conditions such as obesity, depression, falls, stroke, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases.

The system will be general-purpose, low-cost and accessible and sensors will be entirely passive, requiring no action by the user and suitable for all patients including the most vulnerable.

Craddock says: “Families, carers, health and social services professionals involved in all stages of care will benefit from the system. SPHERE (the name of the project) will address real world challenges by developing a practical technology to target health concerns such as; obesity, depression, stroke, falls, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases.”

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