A 30-minute test for infections and a multi-core current clamp will share a £40,000 prize to help commercialise the innovations.
Researchers from the University of Glasgow and the University of Southampton have been made joint winners of the Royal Academy of Engineering ERA Foundation Entrepreneurs Award.
The ERA Foundation established the award to identify entrepreneurial researchers working in UK universities in the field of electro-technology who are at an early stage in their career and provide them with the investment needed to commercialise their research.
Dr Julien Reboud, a Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow’s Division of Biomedical Engineering, now has the opportunity to take his patented SAW Dx system (Sound Diagnostics Anywhere) to market.
The device enables rapid detection of diseases using advanced digital diagnostics on low-cost disposable chips. A prototype device for trials on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) has a reader about half the size of a shoebox and uses disposable cartridges, the size of a conventional glass slide, for the sample.
Only a drop of blood or a swab would be required as a sample and the test results should be available within about 30 minutes, compared with 6-10 days’ laboratory testing, when the samples have to be sent away to a central facility.
The device allows different analytical functions to be carried out at the same time with the sample of blood or urine kept in one place, by using ultrasound.
The ultrasound can be made to agitate samples in a very specific way, depending on what function is needed – for example temperature cycling of the sample or opening of the cells to release their DNA.
The functions required are enabled by the use of microstructures on the surface of the chip that work as acoustic holograms that shape the sound. For a single structure, different “shapes” are enabled at different frequencies of the sound waves (or pitches), providing a method to switch between different functions on a single disposable chip.
“Our aim is to deliver a diagnosis of the microbial infection within 30 minutes,” said Dr Reboud. “This would be a crucial breakthrough, enabling the patient to be treated during one visit to a clinic, breaking the cycle of infection and transmission. We have made significant progress in developing a prototype and optimising the diagnostics, though more work is needed.”
The commercial potential for the device is huge in the developed world – the molecular diagnostic test market was worth nearly $5bn in 2010 – and it has already attracted funding from the Gates Foundation due to its potential to help in the fight against malaria.
“We have demonstrated that we can identify malaria in a drop of blood on a device powered from the rechargeable battery of a mobile phone,” said Dr Reboud. “Again, this rapid hand-held test could help to break the pattern of infection and transmission by enabling both diagnosis and treatment in one go in remote environments.
The other prize winners are Dr Reuben Wilcock, Enterprise Fellow at the University of Southampton, and PhD student Robert Rudolf, who have created a device that can detect the most energy-hungry parts of people’s homes without installing plug-in power monitors on each individual appliance.
Their multicore current clamp can measure current flowing in any accessible mains cable, giving a more detailed picture of the electricity usage in a home than current home energy management systems, which usually rely on a single core current clamp sensor on the incoming live wire that only gives a reading for the total electricity use.
Through extensive modelling and analysis they have shown that they can calibrate the device and accurately measure mains cable current to a full scale of 16 amps, with an accuracy of better than 1 per cent.
“This is a world first,” said Dr Wilcock. “Many people have tried to do this but non-invasive measurement of current in two- or three-core mains cables is extremely challenging because an equal and opposite current flows in the live and neutral wires, cancelling out the field you are trying to measure.
“Our system addresses this challenge by using state of the art sensors and elegant calibration and measurement algorithms.”
The new clamp is ideal for industrial power monitoring – many industrial machines are permanently wired in and have no plug to accommodate a conventional energy monitor.
The system will also be invaluable for office energy audits, reducing the need to turn off equipment for fitting and removal, and for electrical test equipment to help electricians find faults.