Today I started working on EPSRC project EP/L010437/1; which is also known by the title “Optical fibre instrumentation for point of care diagnostics”. Or as I like to call it ‘breath project thing’.

(note to self: come up with a new project name, current favourite ‘project VADR’ (the Vapour Analysis to Direct Response system)

For the un-initiated into the dark circle of academic funding, EPSRC is the engineering/physics themed research council; and research councils are the people who give us money. The job of the research council is to only give money to the projects that have the greatest public/national value. Thankfully, EPSRC liked this project, and here we are.

To explain the project better, I’ve decided to go with a really basic post introducing the work, based on some FAQs (where FAQ = things my mum asked)…

So what are you actually making?

The aim of this project is – build a sensor that can measure stuff in the breath of patients in hospital or even at the doctors.

The ‘sensor’ will be a fibre-optic sensor, which I’ve partly introduced before and have some prior experience in (see my thesis for some very dull details). Fibre optic sensors are long strands of fibre optic along which we have modified particular regions to react to a particular component (stuff) of a person’s breath.

A quick sketched design, the breathing tube is about 2cm across btw

A quick sketched design, the breathing tube is about 2cm across btw

The stuff we will be measuring (at least to start with) will be ammonia. Ammonia levels in the breath have been linked with bowel cancer and kidney failure. They are also found at high levels in ill patients, so ammonia is an ideal first marker.

I should add that ammonia was chosen simply as a starting point. The project is really about creating a ‘platform’ from which other tests can be built. Ideally, after this project is finished more, shorter projects should take over our work and produce versions of this sensor for other disease markers.

Why do we need our breath measured?

Because it’s needed.

In an ideal world, if you are sick you would go to a doctor, have a test and be given a diagnosis on the same day/visit. No-one wants to go home and wait for 3 weeks to hear the results of a cancer test.

Moving testing from large lab systems to desktop ‘Point of Care’ systems is where health care needs to be going. It’s cheaper (less visits = less time = less ££) and it’s better for the patient (less waiting = less stress).

The sensor system, once finished, is aimed at being simple for clinicians to use while costing less than any existing analysis systems. But that’s just the first goal. As I mentioned before, this system is a ‘platform’ for other markers. I hope that the work we produce will be expanded so that this one little sensor will take multiple measurements and give doctors a raft of new information to work from.

Okay, and who is ‘we’?

Research projects are made up of teams. It’s pretty rare that something so big as ‘make a new sensor’ is driven by just one person, and this project is no exception. I won’t list all the people involved by name because that would be tedious to read and meaningless for most of my readers. But here’s a basic break down:

Research Fellow 1 – Responsible for the design and development of the sensor and software, as well as building the device to be used with the patient.

Management 1 – To glare menacingly at Research Fellow 1 until all work is completed.

Research Fellow 2 – To run alternative sensor system to act as Lab comparison for the sensor and to drive the clinical testing of the system.

Management 2 – Not sure what management tactics they’ll employ for Research Fellow 2 but I’m not ruling out “glare menacingly” – it’s a very popular technique.

I’m fulfilling the roll of ‘Research Fellow 1’ by the way. Everyone else on the project I will introduce in future posts, if for no other reason than ‘I can name drop’ 🙂

Is this all at Cranfield?

This project is a joint project between people at Cranfield University, the Open University, Addenbrooke’s Hospital and Kitikushou University. We all have our own areas of technical expertise and bring something a little different to the project.

Cranfield University – We have the sensor technology. As I’ve detailed in my thesis – making sensors is our thing.

The Open University – They have lots of experience taking breath samples and designing systems for clinical use.

Addenbrooke’s Hospital – We’ll need some actual breath to show that our system works – funding agencies won’t just take our word for it 🙁 – so they’ll be providing some volunteers.

Kitakyushu University – Much of this project is based on the chemistry that they discovered/researched. They are providing the sensor coating that makes it react to ammonia.

How are you going to do all this?

That is a much bigger question than the others, the answer to which is ‘watch this space’.

A big part of this project (5% of my time, and unspecified budget) is given up to public communication of this project. The first part of that work will be explaining the project progress though this blog, the LIVE stream and via Twitter.

I’ll cover this in more detail once the project gets going but I am going to try my best to make this project as accessible and open as possible. The project is due to last three and a half years and I’m going to spend the whole thing trying to show people what university research is actually like.

We have a project kick-off meeting in March at which we’ll discuss what Open Science structure/practices to adopt and I’ll report back with what we intend to do. But until then keep reading and go watch my rapidly improving live streams.

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Categories: ErrantWritings


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