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The University of Southampton

Revolutionary healthcare technology selected for prestigious science show

Published: 12 June 2023
Three men holding a rover robot
Hiroki Cook, Professor Sumeet Mahajan and Jake Kleboe with the replica Mars rover

Cutting-edge technology used to search for signs of life on Mars is poised to revolutionise disease detection and monitoring, via research led by the University of Southampton.

This technology will be on show at the prestigious Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London in July – in the form of a replica Mars rover, singing bowls and a ‘Rainbow Resonator’.

The interactive exhibit demonstrates technology called Raman spectroscopy, which uses vibrations and light. It offers the potential of non-invasive detection and monitoring of diseases, such as cancers or osteoarthritis.

Lead researcher Sumeet Mahajan , Professor of Molecular BioPhotonics and Imaging at the University of Southampton, said: “NASA’s rover Perseverance, which is looking for signs of life on Mars, uses Raman spectroscopy – exactly the same technology that we are using to develop disease detection. NASA is looking for molecules that might have represented life, and we are looking for molecules in living patients to diagnose diseases.”

Professor Mahajan and Richard Oreffo , Professor of Musculoskeletal Science at the University of Southampton, are part of an interdisciplinary team within a multimillion-pound programme funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council called InLightenUs , that includes researchers from the universities of Nottingham and Edinburgh.

“InLightenUs is based on the premise that we can transform diagnostics,” explained Professor Mahajan. “Currently the norm is invasive and takes a long time, for example a biopsy is taken and sent for analysis. Our proposal is to diagnose instantly through Raman spectroscopy and other InLightenUs technologies. Our ultimate vision is a walk-through arch, similar to an airport scanner, which would scan your body instantly up to a 10cm depth for all different diseases, providing an immediate diagnosis. It wouldn’t use any biopsies or harmful radiation.”

This vision is for 2050 and beyond, but is expected to begin making an impact within five years. “Within five years, I predict we will be using a combination of techniques developed within the InLightenUs programme to scan to several millimetres beneath the skin to help diagnose diseases such as melanoma or osteoarthritis,” said Professor Mahajan.

Professor Mark Bradley, Director of the InLighenUs project, based at the University of Edinburgh, said: “I am delighted that we are able to share the work and vision of our interdisciplinary research team with the wider public. It shows the power of bringing together the disciplines to enable step changes in health technologies and their application, and allowing and growing the next generation of early career researchers.”

Professor Amanda Wright, from the University of Nottingham, added: “At Nottingham, we are working towards this vision by using technology first developed for ground-based astronomy, where objects are viewed through the atmosphere, to produce high quality images through layers of tissue. We bring together engineers and computer scientists to speed up the processes involved, enabling solutions that are suitable for the clinic.”

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

At the summer science exhibition, members of the public will be able to drive the replica Mars rover over Martian-style terrain, using its integrated Raman spectroscope to hunt for ‘life’.

University of Southampton PhD students Jake Kleboe and Hiroki Cook built the rover. Jake said: “The rover moves across a simulated Mars surface, demonstrating ‘light firing’ laser techniques to identify materials by revealing their ‘chemical fingerprint”. It demonstrates to the public how the Perseverance Rover is using light to detect molecules of life on Mars.”

“We will showcase how innovations in disease detection technology on Earth go hand in hand with amazing discoveries in space,” added Hiroki. “Visitors will be able to play our Hunting for Aliens game by piloting the rover to search for ‘life’, and compete for a spot on the leader board.”

The singing bowls emit a hum when a mallet is run around their rim, in an acoustic portrayal of how vibrations behave. The Rainbow Resonator features balls that vibrate at different frequencies according to the colour of the light behind them, demonstrating how different molecules vibrate and scatter different colours. The exhibit will also include mannequin patients from which ‘biopsies’ can be taken and assessed, using Dr Raman – a semi-automated microscope – to determine which tissues are healthy and which tissues are diseased.

There are a total of nine exhibits at the Royal Society event, which typically attracts more than 13,000 visitors. The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition takes place at the society’s headquarters in central London from 4 to 9 July.

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