New sensors to be developed for drug monitoring and quicker cancer detection

A multidisciplinary project is set to combine the expertise of photonics engineers and healthcare clinicians to develop new sensor technology with a range of healthcare uses.

Researchers from the Universities of Southampton, Sheffield and York, as well as the University Hospital Southampton and the National Oceanography Centre are collaborating on Project MISSION – which could provide solutions for rapid diagnostic medical screening, as well as for environmental monitoring.

The focus will be on utilising silicon photonics for transformative technology that can be manufactured on a mass scale. According to the University of Southampton, key work will include developing ‘chip-scale sensors in the mid-infrared wavelengths (3-15μm)’, which will enable sensors to ‘spot unique identifiers in biological and chemical molecules’.

The project – funded by a £5.8 million grant by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council – will produce Mid Infrared (MIR) waveguide technology, light sources and detectors, and implement ‘key optical sensing technologies on-chip’, and ‘packaging and electronic read-out’.

Following consultation with ender users, such as the NHS, Southampton says work will take place on three ‘key research demonstrators’.

One will measure greenhouse gas emissions from oceans, while the other two will be focused on developing the sensors for potential medical benefits.

These will include liquid biopsies for quicker cancer detection – aiming to develop ‘ubiquitous sensors’ that can detect the proteins in patients’ blood that can indicate certain cancers. The other area of medical use set to be focused on is the monitoring of therapeutic drug levels via ‘low cost’ sensing devices for use in homes or GP surgeries, which could measure the concentration of specific drugs to enable better patient treatment and outcomes.

Professor Graham Reed, Head of the Silicon Photonics Research Group at the University of Southampton and Principal Investigator for the project, said: “I’m delighted that the EPSRC has chosen to trust us with this important technology development work.  We have put together an exceptional multidisciplinary team that I am confident can collectively make huge progress towards better lives for people around the world”.

Professor Saul Faust, Professor of Paediatric Immunology & Infectious Diseases at the University of Southampton and Director of the Southampton NIHR Clinical Research Facility, added: “Quite often technologies are invented and it then takes time to work out how to use them in the real world. This award gives clinicians the opportunity to work with Prof Reed and colleagues right from the start to bring new devices to the NHS much more quickly than has been possible in the past”.