Innovation, News

Robotic cancer sensors, helmet brain scanners – 20 new health tech projects announced

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has announced funding for 20 new health technology projects – ranging from robotic bowel cancer sensors and smart shoe insoles, through to helmets that perform brain scans, robots that support independent living, dissolving ‘needles’ and chips for monitoring the immune system remotely.

The 20 projects are being supported financially through £30.8 million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), while four are being co-funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), both of which are part of the UKRI.

A wide range of objectives are set to be covered by the research, including the aims of improving treatments, saving money, and creating inclusive solutions, healthier environments and new digital healthcare systems.

EPSRC Executive Chair, Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, is quoted as saying: “Technologies and approaches pioneered by UK researchers have the potential to revolutionise treatment for a wide range of conditions, from bowel cancer to diabetes.

“The projects announced today exemplify this potential and may play a key role in improving the lives of millions of people.”

The health tech programmes and sandpit grants to receive a share of the funding are:

  • Beyond Antibiotics – receiving £6.5 million in funding, this project is led by Professor Eleanor Stride from the University of Oxford and will aim to develop ‘drug-free’ ways of treating infections and provide ‘viable alternatives’ in the face of increasing antibiotic resistance.
  • Terabotics – set to be boosted by £8 million from EPSRC, Professor Emma MacPherson from the University of Warwick will lead a team to create robotic sensors that can detect bowel cancer tumours, which it’s hoped will speed up both diagnosis and removal. The TeraHertz imaging tech could be used for colonoscopies or even on top of the skin.
  • Digital Health: On-organ Sensing For Bowel Monitoring – A Bottom Up Approach – researchers from a number of UK academic institutions will collaborate to create digital sensors that will sit in the large intestine of people will faecal incontinence and act as an ‘early warning system’ to alert users about needing to go to the toilet. Its aim is to help patients to manage their condition via a smart phone app.
  • HappierFeet – Disrupting the vicious cycle of healthcare decline in Diabetic Foot Ulceration through active prevention: The future of self-managed care – another collaborative project across UK universities will see researchers work together on co-designing self-managed smart shoe insoles with patients. Using pressure, temperature, inertial measurement units and acoustic sensors, they will aim to detect the early signs of diabetic foot ulcers and help people adjust the way they walk.
  • Digital Health: OptiMuscle – Improving health outcomes through the optimisation of muscle function – Dr S Preece at the University of Salford leads on this project, which will use visual and auditory biofeedback to help people with dysfunctional breathing to correct their muscular breathing control.
  • Digital Health: Innovative engineering technologies to improve the understanding and management of fatigue – researchers in this project will use sensory technologies and artificial intelligence algorithms to investigate and analyse fatigue indicators, patterns and phenotypes.

Healthcare Impact Partnerships being funded include:

  • A team, spearheaded by Professor Ryan Donnelly from Queen’s University Belfast, hopes to develop a ‘transdermal patch’ that ‘bypasses the skin’s barrier layer’ by using micro-needles that either dissolve after use or swell to allow continuous drug delivery.
  • Led by a researcher from the University of Reading, one project aims to advance ‘Matrix-Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionisation (MALDI) mass spectrometry (MS) profiling of organisms’ via a new instrument and tech – which should lead to improved mass testing, better testing for new diseases and allow more diseases to be tested in one run.
  • A £1.2million project with Dr Yuhang Chen, Heriot-Watt University will focus on developing an evidence-based method of determining the optimal surgical margin during keyhole surgeries, to help with decision-making.
  • Natural Language Processing (NLP) and text mining will be used to ‘unlock’ information in outpatient letters and link that with other health data and hospital databases, as part of work led by researchers from the University of Manchester.
  • A University of Leeds-led project will look at improving Computed Tomography Coronary Angiography (CTCA) technology to image the left main coronary artery of patients at the ‘bedside’ or point of care and lessen the level of expertise required to perform the procedure.
  • Professor Matthew Brookes at the University of Nottingham is partnering with University College London (UCL) researchers to develop a ‘helmet-like’ device – known as the MEG helmet- that can measure electrical brain activity in children, in a non-invasive way. The new brain scanner will be used on infants with epilepsy to help pinpoint the source of seizures.
  • Researchers and clinicians from York and Leeds are collaborating with industry partners and patient groups to find a new way to monitor the treatment of immunosuppressed patients without hospital visits. The technology will use a photonic sensor chip to track people’s immune systems from home, via one single drop of blood.

Funded Network Plus projects include:

  • Bringing medics, imaging experts, mathematicians, and industry and patient group representatives together to decide on the research areas that require data-driven biophysical modelling.
  • Using infrared and Raman to help distinguish diseased from non-diseased cells in biopsies, alongside AI, and supporting a network of partners across digital pathology and AI to ‘develop dynamic and synergistic interaction between these separate communities’.
  • The Bionics+ NetworkPlus will represent and support researchers and industry in bionic technologies, create an open community and lead to the co-creation of user-centred bionic solutions.
  • Another network will build an ‘interdisciplinary community’ that will explore future blood testing with the aim of creating remote, rapid, affordable and personalised solutions.
  • Connected to the forthcoming £70 million National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC), one network will focus on developing the next generation of advanced technologies for rehabilitation, targeting musculoskeletal, cardiorespiratory, neurological and mental health conditions.
  • Five short, focused projects led by UCL will focus on transformative innovation in the delivery of assisted living products and services – including looking at the regulatory landscape for AI post-Brexit.
  • The final network, EMERGENCE, will be formed by a team of staff from several universities – The University of the West of England Bristol, Sheffield, Heriot Watt, Sheffield Hallam and Hertfordshire – who will aim to create a robotics for healthcare community to connect researchers, healthcare professionals, policy makers and services users, to encourage and explore the use of robots to support people to self-manage conditions that result from frailty.

Find out more about the projects, and funding, on the EPSRC website.