Lighting the Way to a Healthy Nation - Optical 'X-rays' for Walk Through Diagnosis & Therapy

Lead Research Organisation: University of Edinburgh
Department Name: Sch of Chemistry


Imagine a world where walking through a revolving door or archway allows "invisible light" (light outside our normal visual range) to generate detailed 3D images of any patient with high resolution! This is the global vision and targeted ambition of this 2050 proposal. This will allow us to target very early detection of disease using light (referred to as a non-ionising radiation technology) in association with fast computational methods and artificial intelligence (AI) to reconstruct images. This will be transformative, is a practical reality, and in addition potentially offers unique treatment options for the healthcare needs of 2050.

These goals will be achieved by simultaneous interdisciplinary advances:
- Harnessing of world-leading optical physics - with lasers that work at wavelengths of light that are invisible to the naked eye - akin to radio waves but with very different frequencies.
- Rethinking of existing detector technology and development of layers of new chemistries and sensor materials to allow them to function at these "invisible colours"
- Development of novel image restoration tools and new computational optics and imaging that will allow us to access information at depth that was previously hidden without any injection of dyes or causing inconvenience.
- Validation of the technology on diseases that have huge impacts on quality of life and huge NHS costs, for example osteoarthritis and cancer.

Why is this needed?
(i). Bone disease: By 2050 there will be over 2 billion people aged over 60. This is wonderful news for us all, but will present a variety of healthcare challenges. For example it is predicted that the numbers of hip fractures worldwide will increase from 1.7 million in 1990 to 6.3 million in 2050. In addition, musculoskeletal conditions are worsened by the rising problem of obesity - that affects old and young alike with half the UK population predicted to be obese by 2050. Our technology will impact on these statistics. Detecting disease early and affordably and non-invasively will allow life-style changes to be made by patients (before it is too late) - leading to positive effects on quality of life and broad impact in relation to the NHS.

(ii). Cancer: In the UK 1 in 2 of those born after 1960 will develop cancer with a 20% chance of dying from that cancer within 5 years. In 2050, as longevity has increased, the chances of someone getting cancer in their lifetime will be 8 in 10. Being able to influence these statistics will have dramatic impacts. Our vision is that non-invasive externally applied illumination sources - with micron precision - will be able to illuminate a tumour in a three-dimensional sense and destroy it.

Driving patient health: Now think of the impact of what else the deeply penetrating and focused light might be able to do? Interacting with tissues selectively in a three-dimensional manner - could we hit activate drugs in a localised 3D pattern? Will we be able to drive fat cell metabolism? The possibilities are tremendous and we seek to address these in our research.

Planned Impact

Our proposed research programme will generate numerous avenues for the realisation of impact:

(a). Patients and Society and the NHS in 2050

(i). We will take steps towards an all-seeing optical technology for whole-body high-resolution non-invasive and safe imaging using light (in the very far-red region). The technology will replace current CT, PET and MRI technologies (which cause significant disruption to patients). Thus, our project will have significant positive social impacts on patients by "optimising treatment". However, more than that think of the impact of what else the light might be able to do: Interacting with tissues selectively in a three-dimensional manner - able to drive fat cell metabolism - able to hit tumours/activate drugs in a localised 3D pattern.

(ii). We will help the NHS cope - the number of patients with osteoarthritis and cancer in 2050 will be an enormous economic burden. The costs of complications, prolonged hospital visits and poor quality of life MUST be avoided. A technology that impacts on this journey - that is non-invasive - that can help rapid and early diagnosis - that could begin to treat! That is our ultimate healthcare vision - the possible impacts are tremendous.

(b). The project will open up new market opportunities within UK/EU/worldwide across the medical technologies and advanced instrumentation sectors. The project will train multi-skilled, multidisciplinary scientists and engineers that are key to a high-tech/high-value economy.

(c). Training: A key part of our mission will be to break down the traditional 'barriers' between engineering, physical, computational and biomedical sciences. The entire team (and many others in groups across the UK) will benefit from the interdisciplinary and translational thrust of the programme and the exchange of ideas.

(d). Public Engagement: As part of our impact strategy, we will actively seek out opportunities for public-engagement. For example, we will build a user-friendly demonstrator for the project technologies that we can take to multiple exhibitions, schools, and events such as International Science Festivals and the Science Museum (e.g. our Stem Cell Mountain, a permanent fixture at Winchester Science Centre, has been visited by over 1,000,000 visitors). This will allow us to demonstrate the technologies potential, power and excitement.

(e). Academia/Research Clinicians: This project will benefit a wide variety of academics due to broad and world-leading anticipated advances in science, technology and engineering, as well as enabling new suites of medical interventions and non-invasive methods/tools for clinicians. To maximise the widest possible academic impact project results (following suitable IP protection) will be disseminated through multidisciplinary journals and at international meetings.

(f). Translation: It is anticipated that new ideas, concepts and inventions will be generated across this interdisciplinary project. Given the teams' remarkable outputs with regards to patents and commercialisation and the area of research (optics, photonics, imaging, data analysis) we are of the strong conviction that not only will new IP be created by the team, but that some of it will be in highly translatable areas driven by a clear healthcare pull. We believe there will be exploitable and commercialised IP within the 5-year lifetime of the project. Importantly the project's critical mass will create a new cohort of interdisciplinary scientists, engineers and technologists that will help drive benefit for the UK economy - as well as the 2050 vision - the health of the nation.


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