Scientists scoop top prize for light-based detection technology

Cancer Research Technology (CRT)

CyMap, an innovative lens-free microscope developed by Cancer Research UK scientists and members of the Optical Biochips Consortium*, has won first prize in the Medical and Healthcare category of The Engineer’s Technology and Innovation Awards as well as the overall Grand Prix prize.

The awards recognise and honour innovation in the UK resulting from the collaboration between academia and industry.

The technology could be developed into a compact cell imaging system for use in research laboratories. It also has the potential for use in medical diagnostics systems to quantify and analyse medical samples in hospitals, doctors’ surgeries and clinical laboratories.

Instead of using optical lenses, the CyMap technology employs light to illuminate ‘objects’ such as cells or pathogens in a sample which create light diffraction and interference patterns that can be recorded by a simple optical detector.

This enables scientists to count the number of cells in a sample, and also to monitor changes over time, such as their location, movement and division. Since the system contains no physical lenses, there is no requirement for focusing or other critical adjustments.

The CyMap technology is now available to be licensed through Cancer Research Technology (CRT) – Cancer Research UK’s commercialisation and development arm. CRT is also working with The Technology Partnership Plc (TTP) to identify partners to develop it further.

Paul Galluzzo, consultant at The Technology Partnership Plc, said: “CyMap can transform existing systems by enabling imaging capability where it was previously too expensive, and open the door to the creation of exciting new stand-alone devices.”

Research on the technology was led by Professor Boris Vojnovic at the Cancer Research UK/MRC Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology at the University of Oxford, in collaboration with a team lead by Professor Paul Smith at Cardiff University and scientists at Bangor University.

Professor Gillies McKenna, director of the Gray Institute, said: "The lens-free microscope is a technological breakthrough that is likely to have wide application in medical research and diagnostics. Whilst traditional lens-based microscopes have become ever more sophisticated in helping doctors and scientists to understand changes that occur in cells, sophisticated forms of the instruments tend to be complicated to use, bulky and expensive. This CyMap lens-free microscope is simple, robust and cheap.”

The technology was developed in the research laboratory to monitor the growth and movement of cells, such as cancer cells, but it can also be used in the diagnostic setting, for example to count red and white blood cells when managing conditions such as anaemia, leukaemia or HIV. It is potentially applicable to other areas of health science such as stem cell research and tissue engineering as well.

Dr Phil L’Huillier, CRT’s director of business management said: “This award recognises the innovation and potential in the technology behind this compact device. We believe it can be used to cast light on key biological processes, or to develop new hand-held diagnostic devices. Although primarily designed to monitor the characteristics of cancer cells, the device has strong potential in a wide range of other health science fields.”

Notes to Editor

*This Consortium was backed by funding from Research Councils UK, which includes the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Medical Research Council (MRC), with the aim of developing optical biochips for use in cell-based drug discovery, point-of-care diagnostic applications, and veterinary diagnostics. One of the outcomes of this funding was the CyMap technology.

The 2009 Engineer awards were held at The Royal Society on Friday 4th December. You can read more about the event here.

CRT is currently working with The Technology Partnership Plc to find suitable development partners. You can read the announcement for this agreement here.