New technology that could detect cancer faster and more accurately wins a Royal Society Innovation Award

30 March 2017

A researcher developing a method for earlier, non-invasive detection of cancer; and a researcher investigating the use of boron doped diamond as a pH and chlorine sensor for water safety; are both being awarded the Royal Society Innovation Award. The scheme is for scientists to develop a proven novel concept or prototype into a near-market ready product.

Professor Chris Phillips, from Imperial College London who has developed Digistain a non-intrusive, faster and more accurate way of detecting cancer receives £246,552. Currently, pathologists look under a microscope at the biopsy of a tumour that’s been stained with vegetable dye to assess the grading and severity of the tumour. This technique is subject to wide variation and prone to error due to the human judging element. Digistain works by capturing images of the biopsies at mid-infrared wavelengths which shows up the chemical changes of the tumour, and removes any human guesswork from the assessment. 

Professor Phillips is working with Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald’s (University of Cambridge) Cytosponge, to gather samples of cells from the oesophagus lining. Cancer of the oesophagus is a deadly disease with less than 15% of people surviving more than five years, this type of cancer has increased six-fold in the last thirty years particularly in white, men with heartburn symptoms. When Digistain and Cytosponge are used in combination it is hoped that this will provide earlier detection of oesophageal cancer which is key to improving survival. 

Professor Julie MacPherson from the University of Warwick, who receives £250,000, has been investigating with Professor Mark Newton, a new carbon material - boron doped diamond (BDD) as a pH and chlorine sensor for water safety. Currently, the most widely used pH sensor is a fragile glass bulb pH electrode which is based on technology that is over 100 years old. BDD has all the material attributes of diamond – non-corrosive, scratch resistant, but can electrically conduct due the boron. This enables BDD to be used as an electrode and placed in solutions which other more traditional electrodes, such as metals, couldn’t survive. 

Commenting on the awards, Dr Hermann Hauser KBE FREng FRS, science entrepreneur and co-chair of the Royal Society’s Science, Industry and Translation Committee, says, “We are delighted to announce the winners of the Royal Society’s Innovation and Translation Awards. These awards support some of the very best, innovative researchers in UK universities to increase their chances of entrepreneurial success. The process of translating research from academia into commercially viable products can be challenging and we are proud to help bridge the journey for nine researchers this year.”

The prizes are presented at Labs to Riches tonight (30 March). The evening brings together leading scientists, engineers, industrialists and policymakers to celebrate the achievements of some of the UK’s most innovative researchers. The event theme focuses on the role of science in the UK’s industrial strategy and contribution to economic growth. A keynote address will be given by Sir Adrian Smith FRS

The Royal Society Translation Awards are also being awarded to seven scientists who wish to investigate the potential of commercialising an aspect of their research. The awardees are: Dr David Fairen-Jimenez from University of Cambridge; Professor Peter O'Connor from University of Warwick; Dr Cameron Pleydell-Pearce from Swansea University; Professor Sunetra Gupta from University of Oxford; Dr Jason Hallett from Imperial College London; Dr Fumiya Lida from University of Cambridge; and Dr Helen McCarthy from Queen's University of Belfast. (For information on the projects please see notes to editors). 

The evening will also see the last two Brian Mercer Feasibility Awards prizes awarded to Professor Geraint Williams (Swansea University, £30,000) who is researching a novel, environmentally-friendly smart corrosion inhibitors to potentially replace hexavalent chromates, due to be banned by the European Chemicals Agency; and Dr Paul Fromme (University College London, £30,000) who is investigating the feasibility of self-supported chimneys to provide opportunities towards cheaper and reliable solar electricity generation.