£3m boost for cutting-edge medical technologies

Novel cancer test, computerised glasses and HIV assay among projects to receive backing

Among the innovations to receive funding is a smartphone connected HIV diagnostic device that will help widen access to testing in GP surgeries, pharmacies, community settings and in developing countries

A cancer test that can gauge how patients are responding to treatment, computerised glasses for people with sight problems, and a smart phone to improve HIV testing in community settings are just three innovations that will share a £3m moneypot aimed at speeding up the development of new medical technologies.

A total of five inventions have been awarded funding as part of the National Institute for Health Research’s i4i programme (NIHR), the Department of Health has announced.

The first is a simple blood test that will allow doctors to see how a patient is responding to cancer treatment in real time. It could mean shorter treatments and increased survival rates through better-tailored interventions and could improve long-term survival through the early detection of recurring cancers.

The NHS needs inventive medical technologies to improve the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease for its patients

The test has been developed by ProKyma, a spin-out company from the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, and will now be enhanced before undergoing clinical trials.

Other successful devices that have received funding include computerised glasses which could help the 1.8 million people who have serious problems with their sight. The glasses contain tiny cameras that detect people and obstacles and relay this back to the person wearing the glasses by illuminating a set of small bright LED lights embedded into the lenses.

Developed by the team from the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford, the glasses are currently undergoing a 12-month study testing the feasibility for people with diseases such as age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa.

Commenting on the innovation, Dr Stephen Hicks said the aim was to make it easily affordable, adding: “We’re aiming to design a visual aid that is as discreet and economical as possible. No one really wants to wear a bulky camera or computer headset. We’re strong believers that assisted technologies should be as cheap as possible and it’s very satisfying to think that the relatively low cost of its components should make this device easily available to the people who need it most.”

The third grant was awarded to University College London where Dr Rachel McKendry is working on smartphone-connected HIV diagnostics that will help widen access to testing in GP surgeries, pharmacies, community settings and in developing countries.

The £1m injection will be used to further develop the device, which has been produced in conjunction with OJ-Bio and the Japan Radio Company. It uses surface acoustic wave sensors which are already widely used in mobile phones sensors and has been proven to work using model HIV samples. The funding means early-stage clinical work can now begin testing the device using human blood.

We’re strong believers that assisted technologies should be as cheap as possible and it’s very satisfying to think that the relatively low cost of its components should make this device easily available to the people who need it most

Dr McKendry said: “At the very early stages of HIV, marker proteins in a patient’s blood are often very difficult to detect with current point-of-care tests. The beauty of our technology is its inherent sensitivity to low levels of multiple markers, with the potential for much earlier diagnosis of HIV. This will empower patients to gain earlier access to antiretroviral treatment with better associated health outcomes.”

Dr Dale Athey, chief executive of OJ-Bio, added: “The sensors are coated with a layer that captures HIV markers in a finger prick of blood. When these marker proteins associated with HIV stick to the sensor surface they alter its electrical signal related to the concentration in the sample. Our biochip devices are based purely on electrical components and therefore suitable for low-cost mass manufacture.”

The programme provides a route for researchers to develop innovative ideas into a reality that could have a significant impact on patients

Also awarded cash was the Faculty of Engineering at Imperial College London. It will use the money to accelerate the production of a new system that will improve imaging of structural tissues in joints such as cortical bone, tendons and ligaments to avoid unnecessary surgery on healthy tissue.

Finally, a grant was given to Barts Health NHS Trust where research is continuing into electrical and mechanical stimulation of major muscles in the legs in an effort to improve blood circulation and reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis in patients under critical care.

Commenting on the funding, Professor Dame Sally Davies, chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser at the Department of Health, said: “The NHS needs inventive medical technologies to improve the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease for its patients.

“I want to transform research in the NHS. The programme provides a route for researchers to develop innovative ideas into a reality that could have a significant impact on patients.”

The NIHR is now opening its next funding competition, inviting researchers and academics to apply for up to £6.25m to develop more new devices and technologies for patients. Click here for details.

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