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Cohort F Projects

On this page you will find details of all of the projects that we currently supporting on Cohort F of the Midlands ICURe programme 2020 / 2021

If you would like to make contact with any of the cohort or have any questions for them, please do contact us via email :

or by phone: 07385 083391

Many human diseases are caused by the mutation of one or more genes. A general strategy to develop treatments for cancers, for example, is to identify secondary genes whose functions are essential to the survival of tumour cells but are not required for healthy cells. Such genes represent candidate targets for drugs that kill tumour cells but leave healthy tissue unaffected. These genes can be identified using genetic screens that test each gene in the genome one at a time. However, this simply generates a list of possible drug targets, most of which will fail before reaching clinical use. Due to this failure rate, it is now estimated that each new drug developed requires 15 years and £2 billion. Thus, new technologies that increase the efficiency of target identification would be transformational to drug discovery.

We are developing a screening platform that will allow all pairwise combinations of gene disruptions in the genome to be tested in a single screen. This is far beyond the ability of any existing screening method. Analysing pairwise gene effects will allow us to identify candidate drug targets, predict toxicity, predict synergy between single agents, determine mechanisms of action and predict pathways by which cells may become drug-resistant. This will allow prioritization of the ‘best’ targets and therefore reduce the failure rate. In addition, it will be possible to identify combinatorial drug targets for the treatment of common diseases where no effective single agents have been found, such as Ras-driven tumours and Neurofibromatosis type 1.

The initial research into high-fidelity virtual experiences was funded by the EPSRC PSi project [EPS12]. Subsequently a proof-of-concept virtual flavour device was built with support of a BBSRC Challenge Fund Agri-Food Technology Seeding Catalyst Award [BBS17], and a Warwick Impact Fund grant [WIF18]. Subsequent funding by a Royal Academy of Engineering grant [RAE19], with partners New Food-Innovation, the University of Cape Town and the rooibos tea producer, Carmién Tea in South Africa, enabled a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to be built and a user study in South Africa undertaken, Figure 1, to clearly show that people were unable to tell the difference between a sample of a real rooibos tea blend and a virtual sample. In addition, it is also known that many medical conditions are accompanied by a change/loss in taste and/or smell [CA20]. Consequently, the virtual flavour research also underpins a study, funded by University of Warwick Heath GRP Priority Funding Award [GRP20], jointly being undertaken with the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia and Hospital Cayetano Heredia (both Lima, Peru) to investigate the potential for a flavour-based test for COVID-19. This study will also provide feedback of the suitability of an FBT deployed at a home compared to at a dedicated test centre. The research opens up the possibility of producing new, virtual flavours that have high sensitivity for detecting specific medical conditions and to deliver these in a safe, controlled, and repeatable manner.

Extreme (working) environments often requires careful monitoring of personnel or patients. There are no suitable low-cost solutions that can accurately track a range of health-related signs during in-field operation. This is particular true for domains, such as (i) construction, (ii) military and (iii) contact-sports. There is a great need to have access to a customizable platform, which can support the monitoring of a range of different modalities for a range of different users. The OXHOME system developed in the Natural Interaction Lab (NIL) provides a scalable solution that offers a unique sensor platform that can operate under harsh environmental conditions. The system is created to work under extreme mechanical requirements and offers a platform that allows for customizable data collection through the integration of a range of sensor units. The device is supported by several patents and initial verification of in-house algorithms have taken place. The proposed goal is to demonstrate the integrated system in a pilot (TRL 7). Our ongoing engagement with key stakeholders across the domains will then allow us to further address specific needs within a sector. More importantly, it will provide a direct route to market and ensure there is appropriate market fit.

Microfabrication Industry needs: We are now moving from Moore’s law to “More than Moore”: i.e. combining multiple technologies such as sensors and processors on the same high-value microsystem for e.g: Internet-of-Things and biosensors. To facilitate the 3D-microfabrication of multiple technologies, new fabrication methods are required: How the Hy-MEMBS system addresses those needs: I am part of a team at Newcastle University that has developed a microscale 3D fabrication system which can process brittle materials, and thus high value microdevices with the following capabilities:

  1. 3D-micro-subtractive printing: Patterning at any angle for sensors and 3D system integration.
  2. 3D-micro-geometries: Conventional techniques can only produce rectangular products. Hy-MEMBS can create complex geometries such as microlenses.
  3. Jigsaw dicing: All semiconductor devices need to be “diced” from their wafer into smaller shapes. Currently that can only be rectangular. Hy-MEMBS in contrast, is able to dice complex features like a jigsaw.

Hy-MEMBS secondary attributes:

  1. Rapid prototyping: No specialist tooling is required, such as lithography masks (which can take 1-2 weeks).
  2. Versatile: The system can be utilised with a wide range of materials.
  3. Defect-free fabrication: Our approach is a hybrid-mechanical approach – which unlike conventional micro-mechanical approaches, can create a defect-free finish on brittle materials such as silicon.
  4. Low-cost: The system can be produced at low-cost – ~£30k. Depending on sales price mark¬up, it can therefore fit more easily into procurement budgets than £100k+ systems.
  5. Small-size: The technology has a low footprint and thus can be easily be situated in existing facilities.

Production of some high-value monomers used in the chemical industry heavily relies on fossil fuels. In the landscape of shrinking fossil fuel resources and the increased concern over greenhouse gas emissions, governments and the chemical industry are looking to switch to bio-based chemical production. However, most current bio-production alternatives are too costly or too inefficient to be implemented at industrial scale. Our methodology offers an alternative pathway for microbial production of two high-value monomers widely utilised in industry e.g., in paints, coatings and adhesives, using algae and agricultural waste as substrates. Using waste products as the main resource reduces the cost of the process and the overall carbon emissions of the chemical production. Furthermore, our proprietary microbial strains are not constrained by the limitations of the current bio-based chemical production alternatives, allowing us to offer a greater efficiency and the opportunity to scale the process to industrial needs. Our technology has the potential to disrupt the market of high-value monomers predicted to be worth $18.8 billion by 2021.

Electronic voting systems have the potential to be more efficient, increase user engagement and deliver significant cost savings compared to paper ballots, but there are concerns about their “trustworthiness” or susceptibility to tampering which have limited widespread adoption in the real-world. End-to-end verifiable e-voting systems have been widely believed to be the best possible solution to make e-voting secure. However, despite over 20 years research and many E2E e-voting systems proposed in the literature, very few of them have been implemented, and none have been used in any large-scale real-world elections. One key obstacle is that all these systems rely on a set of tallying authorities (TAs), who are supposedly trustworthy individuals with cryptographic expertise tasked to perform complex decryption and tallying operations. In practice, finding and managing such TAs have proved particularly difficult. Our technology overcomes this obstacle by applying novel cryptographical techniques to make an e-voting system end-to-end verifiable, but without involving any TAs - a new paradigm called “self-enforcing e-voting” (SEEV). The authority-free nature of SEEV is a unique feature and a compelling advantage , as the removal of TAs greatly simplifies the election management and makes an E2E voting system much more practical than before. Two prototypes of SEEV have been developed for online shareholders voting and polling station voting respectively. In particular, the e-polling prototype had been successfully trialled in Gateshead during the local elections on 2 May 2019 with voters clearly preferring e-voting to paper ballots. This shows the feasibility of SEEV and potential for commercialization.

The FineHeart automatic artery analysis system arose from Adam Woolf’s PhD developing novel tools to help identify features responsible for heart attacks and strokes. Arterial disease is the biggest killer worldwide found in >90% of people over 60 and causing symptoms in more people than both cancer and Alzheimers combined. No existing technology is capable of reliably predicting arterial events like heart attacks and strokes and current strategies depend on identifying risk-factors associated with events in epidemiological studies. FineHeart is the first test to offer both sensitivity and specificity greater than 80% and offers a personalised system that directly measures the final key stages of the pathway responsible for atherosclerotic events, in-vivo and without depending on any arbitrary threshold or demographic (i.e. age or gender). The tool bolts on to existing hardware already in clinical practice to acquire millions of measurements within arteries at a near-microscopic resolution producing distributions of various measures with direct predictive value for events and indirect value as a surrogate for quantifying disease response to new treatments.

The ‘fluid-gel’ eyedrop that can deliver and retain incorporated therapeutics on the surface of the eye for 6-8 hours. The material flows upon extrusion from an eyedropper before thickening, as a therapeutic, protective and resorbable layer over the eye, which is cleared away by blinking over several hours. The technology tackles the issue of rapid (1-15 mins) clearance of conventional eyedrops where maintaining effective doses, especially for conditions of the front of the eye, can require very frequent dosing or use with specialist, but very uncomfortable, contact lenses. Very frequent dosing can risk toxicity effects, is generally poorly tolerated by patients, and can diminish the perceived cost-benefit to payors. These factors threaten wide adoption of therapies. Lack of good products to even help manage long-term eye conditions often means the working and social lives of otherwise healthy people are impacted.

The commercial opportunity is in partnering with pharma/biotech companies to embed fluid-gel into their drug pipelines, enabling more effective use of each dose to maximise therapeutic effect. The technology is unique in that it has the protective advantage of a contact lens but is as easy to apply as any other eyedrop. The mechanical properties of the eyedrop can be tailored without complex chemical changes, enabling new drug products take the shortest regulatory pathway possible to the clinic. The fluid-gel is safe, can soon be made to clinical grade in a scalable manner and will enter human trials. The overall offer is in a unique and timely position for commercialisation.

There are various forms of internally placed medical devices in routine use in a modern healthcare settings including types of tubes, shunts, drains, and catheters as well as systems placed externally onto patients such as oxygen masks. All of these internally placed medical devices are entirely “dumb” lacking any kind of embedded technology to permit the measurement of internal parameters of clinical value.

The clinical market lacks sensor technology capable of incorporation into routine devices to enable the detection of changes. However, functionalised optical fibres can be translated to the clinical settings as they are small, flexible, biocompatible, inexpensive, and can be sensitized to almost any physical or chemical environmental change. Fibres can be embedded in existing devices to convert them into sophisticated monitors of vital signs. We have a strong track-record of translating our opto-electronic sensing devices into clinical use, through our excellent clinical collaborations with an NHS Trust and industrial partners. An example is iTraXS (intra Tracheal Multiplexed Sensing) a unique revolutionary smart endotracheal tube endorsed by 2018 AAGBI Innovation award. Our new functional materials e.g. metal organic frameworks, molecular imprinted polymers has extended the range of parameters that can be measured to gases, biofilms, biomarkers and drugs, potentially leading to new medical devices providing better understanding of diseases and facilitating new clinical interventions. In this project we would like to test our value proposition and identify the highest value commercialisation opportunities for healthcare photonics as a platform technology that has potential to make significant impact in healthcare.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a major global health problem responsible for over 700,000 deaths per year. By 2050, drug-resistant infections could kill ~ 10m people p/a, more than cancer and diabetes combined, potentially returning medicine to a pre-antibiotic age.

Current antibiotic susceptibility testing (AST) is expensive and time consuming (at least 1-2 days). Meanwhile, the wrong antibiotic may be prescribed which can be detrimental to patient health (e.g. sepsis and pneumonia (including secondary bacterial infections related to COVID-19) and can drive AMR. New diagnostic tests are required to improve patient care, counter development of resistance and facilitate better antibiotic stewardship.

We have developed a rapid (~45 min), low-cost, sensor-based, versatile, direct-from-sample, phenotypic antibiotic susceptibility test modified with a proprietary gel deposit for monitoring microbial growth. The Microplate AST has been designed for use at the point-of-care (POC), and has the potential to be agnostic to sample type. The test has the promise of providing a summary indication of which antibiotic to use for each patient with bacterial or fungal infections, in a timeframe significantly quicker than current gold standard methods (minutes vs days). We envisage the test being used at the POC, for example in a pharmacy or GP’s surgery, where a patient can deliver a standard sample, and within a matter of hours, have a prescription for the correct antibiotic to treat their infection, without a sample having to be sent away to a centralised lab for lengthy processing as per the current gold standard.

The market for cell-based therapeutics and diagnostics, tissue engineering and stem cell banking is rapidly growing. Cells cannot be cultured indefinitely so must be cryopreserved for long term storage and distribution. The current gold standard for cryopreservation is using organic solvents such as DMSO at high concentrations – a 50 year old technology. DMSO does not give full cell recovery, is cytotoxic and many cells lines simply cannot be stored using this approach. Furthermore, emerging cell based therapies (such as CAR-T) involve the direct injection of the cryopreservatives with the cells, which can lead to clinical side effects.

To address this challenge we have taken inspiration from Nature. Extremophiles (frogs to scorpions to Arctic fish) survive extreme cold by producing ‘antifreeze proteins’ which mitigate the damage caused by growing ice crystals. Antifreeze proteins are, however, expensive, potentially immunogenic and are non-ideal in many cryopreservation scenarios.

Our group has developed Synthetic Macromolecular Cryoprotectants – polymers which dramatically improve cell cryopreservation by mimicking some functions of natural antifreeze proteins. The polymers are low cost, synthetically scalable and have been proven to dramatically increase post-thaw cell recovery for a range of cells from blood, cell monolayers to stem cells. We have also used these polymers for the solvent free storage of antibodies and enzymes. Our polymer can replace significant amounts of DMSO, lowering it by more than 70% in many cases.

This is a platform technology with huge potential across all areas of drug discovery, high throughput screening, biologics and fundamental research.

Malaria remains one of the top three infectious deceases in the world, is endemic in 87 countries, and threatens half of the world’s population. In a single day it infects one million and kills one thousand people.

We have developed a novel optical technology that has demonstrated great potential in malaria detection. It allows low-cost, user-friendly, rapid, sensitive, quantitative and automated hands-free malaria detection directly in fresh human blood, without any prior manipulations (like staining or drying) required. Neither currently approved clinical malaria diagnostics nor emerging pipeline technologies offer such a unique combination of advantageous features. We believe our technology can be a basis of a novel malaria detection diagnostic, and offer a prospect for its commercial exploitation.

The technology we have developed is a photonic crystal surface emitting laser (PCSELs), which utilises 2D periodic variations in refractive index generating internal feedback and scattering light out of plane, creating a surface emitting laser which emits from the whole surface area. The operation of this laser is fundamentally different to the 2 main types of laser currently available. The existing laser types, edge emitting lasers (EELs), and vertical cavity surface emitting lasers (VCSELs). In the case of VCSELs and EELs the feedback, gain, and emission of the laser are all in the same direction; the PCSEL is the only laser where feedback and gain are in-plane and emission is in an orthogonal direction (I.e. out of plane, surface emission). There are a number of advantages to making lasers in this way:

  1. With other laser sources there is an inherent compromise between speed, cost, and power. PCSEL can have high power and wavelength agility of an EEL and the speed and cost of a VCSEL, creating a better than both worlds solution;
  2. The area of the laser can be increased, which increases output power, so larger area high power lasers can be produced;
  3. PCSELs can be made in any wavelength, while VCSELs are limited to less that 1000nm;
  4. And 2D arrays of lasers can be fabricated, and the lasers can be tuned to be coherent, which allows even greater power and brightness. It also opens opportunity for more complex communication systems.