€10m ERC Synergy grant win to develop revolutionary cancer treatment robot

Professor Sebastien Ourselin, Head of the School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences, is part of a research group that has been awarded a highly competitive €10m European Research Council (ERC) Synergy grant.

Synergy Grants fund groups of two to four Principal Investigators to jointly address ambitious and complex research problems that could not be addressed by an individual PI and their team.

The group, including 3 other Principal Investigators based in Italy and the UK, brings together exceptional and complementary expertise to undertake pioneering research over the next 6 years to improve the screening and treatment for colorectal cancer (CRC).

CRC is one of the most common types of cancer worldwide, with over 1.9 million new cases and 935,000 deaths reported in 2020. Despite advances in medical technology, interventions are often carried out during the latter stages of development, leading to low patient survival rates or poor quality of life.

The ENDOTHERANOSTICS PI Group includes Professor Ourselin, School of Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Sciences at King’s College London, with Professors Alberto Arezzo (University of Turin), Bruno Siciliano (University of Naples Federico II) and Professor Kaspar Althoefer (Queen Mary University of London).

The group aims to revolutionise the screening and treatment of CRC through the development of a tip-growing or eversion robot with a sleeve-like structure. The robot will be able to extend deep into the colon while perceiving the environment through multimodal imaging and sensing. It will also act as a conduit to transfer miniaturized instruments to the remote site within the colon for diagnosis and therapy (theranostics).

With these capabilities, the system will be able to offer:

  • Painless colon cleansing in preparation for endoscopy
  • Real-time polyp detection and tissue characterization through AI-assisted multimodal imaging
  • Effective removal of polyps by conveying a “miniature mobile operating chamber” equipped with microsurgical tools to the target through the lumen of the eversion robot.

Present day robotic devices are limited in dexterity and unsuitable for performing delicate tasks in remote locations such as in the depths of the colon. In contrast, soft robots demonstrate increased flexibility and adaptability in task performance, leading to improved safety when working around or within the human body.

A tip-growing or eversion robot can extend deep into hollow spaces while perceiving the environment through multimodal imaging and sensing. It will also act as a conduit to transfer miniaturised instruments to the remote site within the colon for diagnosis and therapy.

Currently, CRC screening methods are based on colonoscopy, in which a relatively stiff instrument of about 13 mm in diameter is used to inspect the colon, which can cause discomfort. The process is commonly perceived as undignified and potentially painful, which can lead to missed appointments and thus staffing and resources waste within health services. This research would look to overcome this by improving screening rates with a more patient-friendly approach alongside improving outcome rates by reducing the need for follow-up treatments.

The ERC grants, each worth around 10 million euro, will also help create some 1,000 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students, and other staff in the grantees’ research teams.

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Dr Anna Barnes appointed first woman president of IPEM

Dr Anna Barnes has been appointed to the role of President of the Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine (IPEM) September 2023-2025.

Dr Barnes is the first woman to become president since the organisation changed its name in 1997 and only the second woman since the creation of the Institute of Physical Sciences in Medicine in 1984 from which IPEM originated.

The Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine is the professional organisation that represents a diverse workforce across academia, industry and the NHS who have dedicated their careers to improving healthcare and healthcare delivery.

Dr Barnes, who is a principal research fellow in the School of Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Sciences at King’s College London, Director of the King’s Technology Evaluation Centre, and an honorary Consultant Clinical Scientist in Medical Physics at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital, has been involved with the Institute throughout her career.

Dr Barnes was one of the first two trainees in the new Scotland training scheme, specialising in biomedical engineering and equipment management. She then went on to have a career in medical imaging, graduating with a PhD in 1999 from the University of Glasgow followed by two research positions at New York University and Columbia University in the USA, focussing on the mathematics of brain mapping using multi-modal brain imaging data.

Dr Barnes then pursued a research fellowship at the University of Cambridge Brain Mapping Unit before joining University College London Hospital nuclear medicine department as the lead Clinical Scientist for the newly installed Siemens mMR Biograph PET MRI scanner. During this time, she was awarded two NIHR research fellowships to validate, evaluate and deploy imaging biomarkers in oncology and was appointed Chief Healthcare Scientist for the South-East for NHS England 2020-2022.

Throughout her career, Dr Barnes has been a strong supporter of mentorship in the sector, “I have made it a priority to mentor, nurture and supervise students from primary school to post-graduate education in the hope that I can encourage just one of them to follow a career in STEM.”

The Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine is a charity and is the professional body for physicists, clinical and biomedical engineers and technologists working in medicine and biology. IPEM has around 5,000 members working in hospitals, academia and industry across the UK, Europe and internationally.

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New study finds novel method for early and accurate calcification detection

Researchers from King’s College London have studied the comparative efficacy of two types of radiotracers to detect extraosseous calcification (EC) via PET imaging.

Extraosseous calcification (EC) is the process by which calcium deposits in the body find their way into soft tissue instead of being inserted into the bones. EC lesions are linked to serious health implications; patients with confirmed EC are at a higher mortality risk due to calcification impeding the normal functioning of vital organs such as the heart, kidneys, lungs, etc.

The study has found that a novel radiotracer ([68Ga]Ga-THP-Pam) can help effectively identify EC accurately and at an early stage via PET imaging. The only method that is currently established to detect EC clinically is X-ray-based imaging, but this technique is only able to detect the issue at a very advanced stage when medical interventions lack effectiveness.

Studies have previously identified that PET imaging using the radiotracer 18F-fluoride can detect early-stage EC with high sensitivity. In this process, 18F -fluoride binds to the calcium mineral hydroxyapatite (HAp), commonly found in EC lesions, to indicate where the calcification is based in the body.

However, researchers from King’s have found that 18F -fluoride preferentially binds the HAp mineral found in bones, and does not bind to several other calcium minerals that can be found in disease-related EC lesions. This limitation restricts the ability of 18F -fluoride to find the full extent of EC during the imaging process.

Further to this finding, the group has now established that [68Ga]Ga-THP-Pam allows the detection of micro- and macro-EC lesions in organs more sensitively than 18F-fluoride. Due to its ability to bind with a broad range of calcium minerals, this radiotracer can find calcifications regardless of their HAp content, making the imaging process more accurate than before.

The researchers suggest that the use of this bisphosphonate radiotracer in PET imaging should be clinically evaluated to allow for earlier and more accurate diagnoses of EC along with improved outcomes for patients facing the issue. Read the research paper here.

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UK launches first national Total-Body PET platform for drug discovery

The National PET Imaging Platform (NPIP) will bring together data from two state-of-the-art total-body PET imaging scanners located at St Thomas’ Hospital, London (jointly managed by King’s College London and Imperial College London), and The Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh (jointly managed by the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow), and make it accessible to academics, industry and clinicians.

NPIP is a partnership between Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC), the Medical Research Council (MRC) and Innovate UK, and will deliver scientific breakthroughs with the launch of the UK’s first-of-its-kind national total-body positron emission tomography (PET) imaging platform for drug discovery.

The National PET Imaging Platform will deploy total-body PET across the UK, bringing together transformational research from two state-of-the-art total-body PET imaging scanners. It will transform medical research and industrialise cutting-edge technology, enhancing the quality and speed of drug discovery.

By facilitating access to total-body PET imaging for clinicians, academics and industry, NPIP will help accelerate discoveries, leading to more advances for UK researchers and better outcomes for patients, improving the calibre of healthcare now and in the long term.

PET scanning is a crucial, non-invasive imaging technique that can detect diseases’ early onset. With higher sensitivity than existing technology, NPIP’s total-body PET scanners will provide new insights into anatomy that have never been seen before, improving our detection, diagnosis and treatment of complex, multi-organ diseases.

Current PET technology is less sensitive and requires the patient to be repositioned multiple times to achieve a full-body field of view. Total-body PET scans are quicker, exposing patients to considerably lower doses of radiation, meaning more patients, including children, can participate in clinical trials to improve researchers’ understanding of diseases. The speed of total-body PET scanners means that NPIP will be able to facilitate more patient scans, enhancing the scale and impact of clinical research projects.

This richer picture of human health will help us develop drugs and diagnostics more effectively and bring them to market quicker, benefiting patients and enabling the UK to unlock new opportunities to treat complex diseases like cancer and cardiovascular and neurological diseases.

Supplied by Siemens Healthineers, the two total-body Biograph Vision Quadra PET/CT scanners capture outstanding image clarity of a patient’s entire body in near real-time. The scanners will be situated in Scotland and London, serving the length and breadth of the UK. Each facility will be jointly managed by the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland and by King’s College London and Imperial College London in London, and the scanners are expected to be operational as soon as April 2024.

NPIP’s network of infrastructure and intelligence will provide a complete picture of patients and how they respond to novel drugs and treatments. Uniquely, it will also connect insights from many research programmes and trials. In doing so, it will begin to build a rich bank of data that the PET community can access for the benefit of patients.

The UK Government, through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Infrastructure Fund, has invested £32 million into the groundbreaking total-body PET technology that will help drive the UK’s reputation as a global life science superpower.

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Meet CARL: New Radiochemistry Laboratory opening in St Thomas’ MedTech Hub

A new national research-dedicated centre located within St Thomas’ Hospital as part of the King’s and St Thomas’ MedTech Hub, the facility will specialise in radionuclide production and radiopharmaceutical chemistry for preclinical applications. CARL is a multi-user facility, available to both academia and industry.

Until now, there has been no dedicated, non-GMP-regulated radiopharmaceutical research facility in the UK able to handle high levels of radioactivity, a bottleneck for domestic radionuclide production and radiopharmaceutical research.

The initial upgrade of the CARL laboratory facilities was funded by a £1m equipment grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), awarded to Prof Tony Gee, Prof Alexander Hammers, Prof Phil Blower, Dr Karin Nielsen and Dr Julia Blower, with significant additional support from King’s College London Estates and Facilities.

The facility houses equipment for high-activity radionuclide production and radiochemistry development including hot cells, automated synthesis equipment and specialist analytical equipment.

The 11 MeV cyclotron that originally launched the KCL and GSTT PET Centre in 1991 has also been refurbished as part of the CARL facility. It will be used for making radionuclides for further research onsite in CARL and the Department of Imaging Chemistry and Biology, as well as small-scale supply to research labs across the UK. The centre will also enable hands-on training and teaching on site.


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