SoRo for Health: Implantable soft robotics for restoration of physiological function

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Ear Institute

Abstract

SoRo for Health is a unique interdisciplinary Platform uniting three new and rapidly advancing areas of science (soft robotics, advanced biomaterials and bioprinting, regenerative medicine) in a collaboration that will deliver transformative technological solutions to major unmet health problems. We are a collaborative scientific group including representatives from three of the most exciting and rapidly advancing technology areas in the world. Soft robotics is a new branch of robotics that uses compliant materials to create robots that move in ways mirroring those in nature; a new paradigm that is already transforming fields as diverse as aerospace and manufacturing. Advanced biomaterials is a rapidly progressing field exploring the application of novel and conventional materials to restoring structure and function. It has recently been augmented by advances in 3D- and Bio-printing with seminal clinical breakthroughs. Regenerative medicine uses a range of biological tools, such as cells, genes and biomaterials, to replace and restore function in patients with a range of disorders. It explores the interface between materials and cells and tissues and has been applied to regenerate critical organs and tissues. Our three groups have combined over the last few years to develop a range of prototype solutions to unmet health needs, in areas as diverse as breathing and swallowing, motor disorders and cardiovascular disease. Here we seek to further coalesce our activity in a unique EPSRC Platform with five primary goals. Firstly and most importantly, we will support, retain and develop the careers of three dynamic rising stars (postdoctoral research assistants, PDRAs) who might otherwise be lost from the field. Primarily supporting their career development, we will thereby also ensure the provision of a cadre of stellar individuals with cross-cutting scientific skills and leadership training who can provide leadership and direction to this nascent, but incredibly exciting, field of Soft Robotics (SoRo) for Health. This will benefit these scientists, the field, and the UK through scientific advance and commercial partnerships. Secondly, we will support our PDRAs to explore novel and high-risk hypotheses related to our combined fields through a flexible inbuilt funding stream. This will help their development, but also generate new ideas and technologies to take forward towards further scientific exploration and, where appropriate, clinic; ideas that might otherwise have fallen by the funding wayside. Thirdly, we will expand and develop a vibrant international network that will further support the development of our stars as well as energising the whole field internationally, with its hub here in the UK. Fourthly, we will engage with end-users, from both healthcare professional and patient/carer communities. We will use professional facilitators and established qualitative techniques to identify the key challenges and opportunities for SoRo as it seeks to address the outstanding and imminent issues in population health and healthcare. Finally, we will work with UK industry and biotech business leaders to develop an effective, streamlined route to IP protection, application and commercialisation that gives SoRo for Health technologies the best possible chance for widespread health gains and speedy application to those in need. Thus, the SoRo for Health Platform combines the talents, and specifically emergent talents, of internationally-leading groups in three new areas with the common Vision of transforming the lives of millions through the development of responsive, customised soft robotic-based implants and devices to address some of the major unmet health challenges of the 21st Century.

Planned Impact

Overview.
SoRo for Health Platform's biggest impact is on development of a unique present and future human resource for science and leadership, whilst advancing knowledge in this emergent, exciting field. It will deliver human, scientific, social and economic impact well beyond the 5 year funding timeline, with the goal of translating and accelerating developed technologies into clinic within 10 years. For Impact on Knowledge and People see Academic Beneficiaries section.

Impact on Society
The most immediate effect of a successful Platform and its products is an increase in population health. The mantra of an increasing but ageing population with an emphasis on healthy ageing is a clear reality. We will develop biocompatible implants capable of restoring failing or lost motor functions critical to length and quality of life in fields as diverse as speech, motor function, swallowing, speech and sphincter function. As new treatments and improved early detection and care delivery result in more survivors from stroke (£8.9 billion NHS costs p.a., 100,000 persons per annum, 50% long-term disability, NICE) and cancer (£15.8 billion p.a. 2013), giant causes of mortality and morbidity, there is an increasing need to address wellness in survivorship. Our devices may restore frequently lost functions such as swallowing, voice and continence with a huge improvement in quality of life for millions. As well as restored health, these individuals, and those with many other disorders causing reduced motor functions, may return both to society and wealth-generating work with wide ranging benefits.

Impact on Economy
This proposal fits perfectly with the UK government's policy of supporting a new, high-tech, industrial base for the UK. In a fiercely competitive post-Brexit and post-globalisation world, it has never been more important to find unique industrial niches and competitive edge in our biomedical discovery platforms. Our Platform brings together three of the governmens Eight Great Technologies (2013): robotics and autonomous systems, advanced materials and regenerative medicine into a one cohesive engine. The UK has the extraordinary advantage of being the only medium-sized country that has such as well as the excellence in all three as well as the world class research intensive university to deliver them. We are already attracting interest from leading technology companies. If we achieve our goals, the UK will also be the ideal place to establish clinical delivery Centres of Excellence by partnering our new UK-based SoRo company(ies) with our outstanding leading university teaching hospitals. The potential income from the rapidly growing global medical services industry, where patients travel between countries for treatment, provides a major future economic driver that is complimentary to, rather than competing with, the delivery of the high standard care to NHS patients, as is that from potential Outreach Centres for clinical implant delivery in targeted geographic locations. Our new bench-to-bedside pathways and delivery systems form an additional source of licensing revenue as pathfinders for other countries and commercial entities wishing to develop parallel technologies. We anticipate that this new industry, from manufacture, through delivery to patient care and follow-up, including potential for upgrades, will support the employment of a new, substantial and varied workforce with benefits for employment in an increasingly automated world where other sectors are likely to disinvest in human resource.

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