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Walk-through body scanner could shed light on hidden diseases

Friday, 04 September 2020

Engineers and computer scientists at the University of Nottingham are joining forces on a £1.8m grant to help build the world’s first contactless 3D body scanner to aid early detection of diseases like cancer. 

 

The grant is part of a larger project, called InlightenUs, which is worth £5.4m in total, to be run with the Universities of Edinburgh and Southampton. It is one of just six UK initiatives to secure major funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to develop new technology that will transform NHS care by 2050.

Researchers from all three institutions will use cutting-edge optical physics, detector technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to optimise the diagnostic potential of microscopy, using light as a non-invasive imaging tool.

While this imaging technique already has some use in patient diagnostics, it’s currently only capable of detecting 1mm beneath the skin. For deeper penetration, the project will trial infrared lasers that produce ‘invisible’ light (in wavelengths undetected by the human eye) to go to 5mm, deep enough to diagnose melanomas, and then to 10mm which would allow medics to look at joints and bones.  

Infrared light has the potential to provide clearer diagnostic information than any of the established technologies – all of which have limitations. X-rays, for example, can have damaging effects and MRI is expensive and can cause discomfort.

Instead, the new technology will reproduce safe, affordable, and high resolution medical images; offering faster disease diagnoses and treatment for patients, as well as considerable cost savings to the NHS.   

At first, the new research will be translated in hand-held devices for use on hospital wards or GP surgeries, but in the next 30 years, the ambitious aim is to scale this up to walk-through airport-style scanners which can generate detailed 3D images of structures usually hidden inside a human body.

The Nottingham research arm is led by Dr Amanda Wright and Professor Michael Somekh from the Optics and Photonics Research Group in the Faculty of Engineering. They are working with Dr Andrew Parkes and Dr Mercedes Torres Torres from the Computational Optimisation and Learning Lab and Computer Vision Lab research groups in the School of Computer Science.  

Together the cross-disciplinary team will develop novel methods to compensate for any distortions of the light beam as it travels deep into the tissue. This will involve novel optics combined with computational signal optimisation and tailored AI approaches. The Nottingham researchers will also use AI to improve diagnoses from the generated images.

“Getting an accurate diagnosis can be a drawn-out, expensive process. However, the speed and accuracy of our contactless diagnostic imaging could negate the need for referrals, invasive biopsies and exploratory surgery and allow closer and more frequent monitoring of the health of the patient. Detecting diseases quickly, cheaply and without any harmful techniques will allow for faster treatment and better outcomes for patients. It could be a real game-changer for the NHS.”
Dr Amanda Wright from the Optics and Photonics Research Group, Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham
3t3 cells in a collagen matrix. These are mouse fibroblast cells that are found in connective tissue

The Nottingham research strand will draw on strong links with the city’s Queen’s Medical Centre (QMC) to ensure translation of the new technology is tested in a clinical setting.

Work on the five-year project, funded by the EPSRC’s ‘Transformative Healthcare Technologies for 2050’ initiative, is due to begin in the second half of 2020.

The EPSRC, part of UK Research and Innovation, has announced £32m of funding through the Transformative Healthcare Technologies for 2050 call. The funds will support the next generation of underpinning science and emerging technologies to help the NHS adapt to the disease challenges and resource demands posed by an ageing UK population in the next three decades.

EPSRC Executive Chair, Professor Dame Lynn Gladden, said: “The projects announced today will develop new approaches which could become routine in the NHS and community and home care in the coming decades.

“Harnessing the latest technologies and the UK’s world-leading expertise will allow us to deliver a step-change in how healthcare is delivered and benefit millions of people, emphasising the critical role the UK’s R&D sector plays in improving the health of the nation.”

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Amanda Wright at amanda.wright@nottingham.ac.uk; or Emma Lowry, Media Relations Manager for the Faculty of Engineering, at emma.lowry@nottingham.ac.uk

For EPSRC-related enquiries, contact James Giles-Franklin, UKRI External Communications, at james.giles-franklin@ukri.org or 07702 611906.

Emma Lowry - Media Relations Manager Engineering
Email: emma.lowry@nottingham.ac.uk
Phone: 0115 846 7156
Location: University Park

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Notes to editors:

The University of Nottingham is a research-intensive university with a proud heritage, consistently ranked among the world's top 100. Studying at the University of Nottingham is a life-changing experience and we pride ourselves on unlocking the potential of our students. We have a pioneering spirit, expressed in the vision of our founder Sir Jesse Boot, which has seen us lead the way in establishing campuses in China and Malaysia - part of a globally connected network of education, research and industrial engagement. The University’s state-of-the-art facilities and inclusive and disability sport provision is reflected in its status as The Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2021 Sports University of the Year. We are ranked eighth for research power in the UK according to REF 2014. We have six beacons of research excellence helping to transform lives and change the world; we are also a major employer and industry partner - locally and globally. Alongside Nottingham Trent University, we lead the Universities for Nottingham initiative, a pioneering collaboration which brings together the combined strength and civic missions of Nottingham’s two world-class universities and is working with local communities and partners to aid recovery and renewal following the COVID-19 pandemic.

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