Research

Major investment set to transform healthcare

New cutting-edge fibre optic technology, developed at the University, that could soon be transforming healthcare

Physicists from the University will take a leading role in developing new technologies that could transform healthcare, thanks to a major investment announced today by Universities Minister David Willetts MP.

Three new Interdisciplinary Research Collaborations (IRCs) will receive £32 million in funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to focus on new research that could help doctors analyse and interpret patient data in emergency situations.

As part of this collaboration, researchers at Bath are involved in developing ‘Touch and Tell’ optical molecular sensing and imaging equipment. These cutting-edge fibre optic probes will be designed to be inserted into a patient's lung, but could eventually be used in blood vessels or other parts of the body, such as the digestive or reproductive tracts.

Using advanced fibre optic technology, micro-electronics and new chemical sensors, the probes could then help doctors make rapid and accurate diagnoses that would inform therapy and ensure patients get the right treatment quickly. Initially the research will focus on patients in intensive care units and critically ill babies.

The probe used will house thousands of special optical fibres, some of which will allow clinicians to ‘view’ inside the lung, while others will be modified with sensors that can measure important parameters such as oxygen or acidity levels. In addition, some fibres will deliver ‘smart reagents’ allowing them to sensitively detect specific bacteria and viruses or other agents that can damage the lung.

When integrated, the signals sent back by the probe will rapidly provide highly specific information about the nature of health problems.

Lead researcher from the University of Bath, Professor Jonathan Knight, said: "This project is about solving an identified clinical need which will draw on leading-edge research in optical fibres, chemical sensing and imaging, and use some great engineering to integrate these into a medical device.

"This is an excellent consortium, put together to tackle a significant need. I am convinced that it will see outstanding science, with results being carried right through to the intensive-care environment."

Welcoming the new IRCs, David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said: "As healthcare challenges become more complex, our world-class scientists are finding the next generation solutions."

The University of Bath is collaborating on the ‘Touch and Tell’ project with researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University.

Notes

  • The total investment into the three IRCs is £41 million: £32 million coming from EPSRC and a further £9 million investment from the Universities and project partners.
  • IRCs bring together the broad range of disciplines necessary for large-scale collaborative and multi-disciplinary research to address specific challenges.  Researchers from different disciplines such as ICT, pathology, electronic and electrical engineering will collaborate to form interdisciplinary research collaborations.  Each centre is typically led by one institution involving a number of other collaborative research institutions, industry, clinicians, policy makers and others.  Funding is provided for 5 years, with a mid-term review.
  • The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.
  • Examples of other technologies being developed by the IRCs are: SPHERE: Sensor Platform for HEalthcare in a Residential Environment - a 24/7 digital home health assistant. Sensor technology to monitor patient’s health in their own homes targeting obesity, depression, falls, stroke cardiovascular and musculoskeletal diseases - led by the University of Bristol with the University of Southampton and University of Reading. Early-warning sensing systems for infectious diseases. Next generation smartphone test and tracking systems for serious infections including new strains of influenza, MRSA and HIV - led by  UCL (University College London) with Newcastle University, Imperial College London, and The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.