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Stargazing optics to spot cancer early

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X-ray glow from massive cluster of galaxies captured by ESA’s XMM-Newton space observatory. Credit: ESA/XMM-Newton (X-rays); CFHT-LS (optical); XXL Survey

Two research projects based on photonics have begun that could lead to early detection and better treatment of cancer.

The European Space Agency and the UK Space Agency have prioritised €1.2 million of funding to develop an x-ray machine to spot early signs of cancer, while the UK Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) is collaborating on a photonics project to advance cancer treatment using phototherapeutic methods.

X-ray images are not normally clear enough to detect the early signs of cancer. Engineers from UK company Adaptix have used technology developed for space science to produce 3D scans that generate much clearer images.

The device employs x-ray optics deployed on spacecraft such as the European Space Agency’s (ESA) XMM-Newton mission, which launched in 1999 and is observing stars at x-ray wavelengths.

The machine is also small and portable enough to be used in GPs’ surgeries, rather than the patient having to visit a hospital to get a scan.

Tony Young, national clinical director for innovation at NHS England, said: ‘Using stargazing technology to spot cancer is exactly the type of advanced innovation that could improve care for patients by speeding up diagnosis and helping to deliver our [NHS's] long-term plan which will save half a million lives.’

Adaptix, the company that developed the x-ray machine, was nurtured at ESA’s business incubation centre in Harwell, UK.

Mark Evans, chief executive of Adaptix, said: ‘Working with ESA’s business incubation centre hosted by the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Harwell has given us access to fantastic facilities and leading minds. ESA’s focus on commercialising space-heritage technology to create tangible benefits for the EU population and the UK economy has helped us to create 33 high-value UK jobs in research and development and, increasingly, in manufacturing.’

Meanwhile, a collaborative project between the UK Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) and molecular biology firm LightOx is advancing light-based cancer treatment.

CPI’s healthcare photonics team used optical analysis techniques to help LightOx develop its fluorescent probes. Durham University also produced a prototype light delivery system to allow LightOx to validate its new compounds.

LightOx is now in the process of developing its products for clinical applications.

LightOx’s probes are smaller than any other commercially available product for these applications, meaning they bypass the traditional problems associated with fluorescent probes. They are taken up into cell easily and provide minimal disruption to cell activity prior to light activation, fundamentally changing the way in which these therapies can be delivered to patients.

The technology is also able to target therapeutic action to particular body sites using a simple delivery system, which kills selected cells and tissues without damaging healthy cells, minimising side-effects for patients.

The collaboration between CPI and LightOx forms part of the Spotlight programme, which itself is a partnership between CPI and Durham University, funded by the European Regional Development Fund.

The project comes shortly after CPI’s new National Healthcare Photonics Centre in County Durham was opened. The new centre will support scale-up and commercialisation of med-tech products by acting as a hub for businesses of all sizes and academic partners to work on methods of diagnosing disease, imaging systems, and light-based treatments.

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