Game-changing medical technologies recognised by UK’s top innovation prize

Finalists for the 2016 MacRobert Award are revealed by the Royal Academy of Engineering

Blatchford Linx Limb system is among the finalists

The Royal Academy of Engineering has revealed this year’s finalists for the 2016 MacRobert Award, renowned for spotting the ‘next big thing’ in technology.

And they include Blatchford for the development of the world’s-most-intelligent prosthetic limb; and Siemens Magnet Technology for making a step-change in MRI technology that could enable earlier diagnosis of a range of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and improve drug development.

Each of this year’s finalists has taken a different approach to innovation – from sustained incremental improvements, to starting from scratch

The finalists are competing for a gold medal and a £50,000 cash prize alongside the third finalist - Jaguar Land Rover for the world-class innovation behind the company’s decision to design and manufacture its own engines for the first time.

The overall winner will be revealed at the Academy Awards Dinner at the Tower of London on 23 June, in front of an audience of top engineers and business leaders from some of the UK’s cutting-edge engineering companies.

Many previous MacRobert Award-winning technologies are now ubiquitous in modern healthcare. For example, in 1972 the judges recognised the extraordinary potential of the first CT scanner – seven years before its inventor, Sir Godfrey Hounsfield, received the Nobel Prize.

Global leader in prosthetics, Blatchford, is in the running this year after developing the first-ever prosthetic limb with integrated robotic control of the knee and foot; a system in which the parts ‘talk’ to each other so the limb can adapt automatically to different conditions.

Where previously lower-leg prosthetics wearers have had to plan their days meticulously according to the limitations of terrain they can tackle; the smart robotics in the Linx Limb system constantly monitor and adapt to the wearer's movements and the environment, giving users much greater confidence and freedom.

Siemens Magnet Technology (SMT) has developed a ground-breaking 7 Tesla (7T) magnet that will enable many more people worldwide to access high resolution MRI scanning.

Such high-quality scanning has the potential to provide earlier diagnoses for neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis. The Magnetom Terra could also assist in drug development, and could be used to help develop treatments for early stage diseases and enable monitoring of the efficacy of existing treatments.

Dame Sue Ion, chairman of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “It’s often said that Britain doesn’t make anything anymore, but these companies are proof that the opposite is true, and testament to the world-leading engineering innovation that happens here in the UK.

It’s often said that Britain doesn’t make anything anymore, but these companies are proof that the opposite is true, and testament to the world-leading engineering innovation that happens here in the UK

“Each of this year’s finalists has taken a different approach to innovation – from sustained incremental improvements, to starting from scratch – each resulting in technologies that will have a positive impact on millions of people and bolster the UK economy.

“There is currently a big demand for all aspects of engineering talent, but the pipeline of young people pursuing engineering careers continues to fall short. To meet demand it is vital that we encourage more young people to pursue engineering as a career. Role models and high-profile prizes such as the MacRobert Award are hugely important in showing the opportunities the sector offers.”

The 2016 finalists in detail

Blatchford – the world’s-most-intelligent prosthetic limb

Basingstoke-based Blatchford has developed the first-ever prosthetic limb with integrated robotic control of the knee and foot; a system in which the parts work together like a human leg.

Where previously lower leg prosthetic wearers have had to plan their days meticulously according to the limitations of terrain they can tackle – a walk in the country may be more trouble than it’s worth – the smart robotics in the Linx Limb system constantly monitors and adapts to movements and automatically adjusts to the environment.

The Linx uses a network of sensors across both the knee and foot, which act like human nerves, continuously collecting data on the user, activity, environment and terrain. The central computer then acts like the brain, using this data to adapt the limb’s response using pioneering software called Mi² (Motion integrated intelligence). This means the wearer can walk confidently, knowing that the limb will be at the right speed and support level at all times.

Even simply standing still can be a challenge for lower limb prosthetic wearers, who use a lot of energy and concentration to hold the leg steady, which means that severe back pain is common.

The Linx senses when the wearer comes to a standstill and automatically locks so that the wearer can relax, and when they want to move again the sensors immediately leap into action and unlock seamlessly.

When a patient is first fitted with the Linx, a clinician programmes its central computer by running through a calibration sequence so that the limb learns how its wearer naturally walks and adapts accordingly. This is done via a Bluetooth connection to a software app that shows in real time what the sensors are picking up as it detects the wearer’s natural speed and movements. A smart algorithm then calibrates the limb automatically in one simple step as the knee and the foot joints 'talk' to each other. Previous prosthetics would require each joint to be calibrated in turn in a lengthy process that would often require repeat adjustments.

In England alone, there are currently around 45,000 people who rely on lower-limb prostheses, with around 4,000 lower limb amputations carried out each year. Currently only a fraction of these will have access to the latest technology in the Linx as it falls outside NHS budgets. Most Linx limbs in use today are benefiting amputees in the US, Germany and Norway.

The company is changing the way we look at how to model and enhance human locomotion. I expect this technology will have wider implications, and find new uses in the future

Despite a high price point, the Linx can save money in the longer term, for example by potentially reducing secondary treatments required for back pain, arthritis, falls, and sound-side joint replacements, extending the life of sockets, and potentially lessening the need for carers in the longer term.

MacRobert Award judge, Dr Frances Saunders, said: “Trying to mimic exactly how a human limb behaves in all circumstances is almost mission impossible, yet Blatchford has achieved a huge leap forward in making the knee and ankle joints work together as an integrated system, enabling it to adapt immediately to both the actions of the wearer and changes in the environment.

“The company is changing the way we look at how to model and enhance human locomotion. I expect this technology will have wider implications, and find new uses in the future.”

The Siemens ultra-high magnetic field 7 Tesla system

Siemens Magnet Technology - Improving access to the gold standard of MRI scanning for earlier diagnosis and drug development

Siemens Magnet Technology (SMT), an Oxfordshire-based subsidiary of Siemens Healthcare UK, has developed a ground-breaking 7 Tesla (7T) magnet which is at the heart of the first Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) system suitable for both research and clinical applications.

With more than double the field strength of most MRI scanners, the Magnetom Terra enables much-higher-resolution images.

Siemens Healthcare will be seeking FDA and CE approval in the next year and, pending approval, it could help to achieve earlier diagnoses for neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and multiple sclerosis.

MRI scanners use strong magnetic fields and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of the body. They can be used to examine almost any part of the body, and the stronger the magnetic field, the higher the resolution of the images produced.

The first MRI scanners, developed in the 1970s, had a magnetic field strength of well under 1.0 Tesla. Today, most MRI scanners operate at 1.5 to 3.0 Tesla, and have become an invaluable diagnostic tool, used to help treat billions of patients around the world.

The Siemens team made a radical change from conventional wisdom in the development of the 7T and have achieved a step change in the manufacturability, reliability, performance and cost of MRI magnets

The Siemens ultra-high magnetic field (UHF) 7 Tesla system delivers exquisite image quality to show vascularity of the brain without the need for an injection of contrast media often required at lower field strengths. This allows researchers to identify lesions and bleeds more easily, and the specific areas of the body affected - potentially enabling unprecedented insights into hard-to-diagnose conditions.

The Magnetom Terra could also assist in drug development through improved pre-screening of clinical trial participants to ensure their clinical conditions are similar, enabling more cost-efficient drug trials. It could also be used to help develop treatments for early stage diseases and enable monitoring of the efficacy of existing treatments, detecting, for example, whether chemotherapy drugs have penetrated a cancerous tumour.

Achieving such a jump in magnetic field was a huge engineering challenge. An MRI magnet is composed of a number of coils of thin wires carrying a very high current. The move from 3T to 7T required the addition of enough wire to stretch between London and Brussels. These coils then need to be cooled to 4.2 Kelvin (minus 269 Celsius) – the temperature of deep space – to enable the wire to become superconducting and carry enough current to generate a magnetic field 140,000 times that of the Earth’s magnetic field. The magnet is insulated and vacuum-packed, like a thermos flask, to prevent radiation emissions and temperature variation.

SMT’s system is less than half the weight of incumbent technologies and is pre-assembled and cooled at the factory ready for air freighting, unlike conventional ultra-high field MRI scanners, which have to be shipped in parts and assembled and cooled in situ. This saves several weeks and also cuts the helium requirement - a key advantage given the finite helium reserves on earth.

SMT was able to achieve this step-change in MRI capability by starting from scratch rather than making incremental improvements to existing technologies. By investing heavily in R&D, and probing the absolute physical limits of the technology, the team completely re-invented the superconducting magnet, creating a smaller, lighter, better-integrated structure.

They invented and patented a number of entirely-new technologies that they are now using to improve the cost and accessibility of their mainstream MRI magnets. Just as Formula 1 technology pushes the boundaries of automotive technology but has subsequently ‘pulled up’ mainstream car technology, SMT’s 7T magnet technology has the potential to be deployed across the portfolio.

SMT employed next-generation ‘lean engineering’ techniques and redesigned their factory to accommodate the 7T production line, moving 50% of the equipment in six months, with no impact on production of their existing products – while also keeping the new project secret.

MacRobert Award judge, Professor David Delpy, said: “The Siemens team made a radical change from conventional wisdom in the development of the 7T and have achieved a step change in the manufacturability, reliability, performance and cost of MRI magnets, confirming their role as the world’s leader in this field. The result is a technology with the potential to save millions of lives through improved diagnostics and research techniques.”

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