Professors and university students unveiled a futuristic disease detection facility on Wednesday after spending four years developing and researching the project.
Students at Leicester University teamed up with researchers from emergency medicine, physics and astronomy, engineering, IT services - among others - to pool their knowledge and resources and create the unit.
The £1m facility is to be used in Leicester's Royal Infirmary A&E department. It is designed to detect the “sight, smell and feel” of disease without the use of invasive probes, blood tests, or other time-consuming and uncomfortable procedures.
All the methods are non-invasive, and have the potential to speed up diagnosis.
The methods used in the new diagnostics development unit have never previously been used together or with such a large number of patients.
The project was led by professor Mark Sims, the university's space scientist, and Tim Coats, professor of emergency medicine at the university and head of accident and emergency at the Royal Infirmary.
Sims said: “In the old days, it used to be said that a consultant could walk down a hospital ward and smell various diseases as well as telling a patient’s health by looking at them and feeling their pulse. What we are doing is a high tech version of that in order to help doctors to diagnose disease.It is hard to predict how this work will develop. But ten years from now it could be routine for diagnostic technology to be combined in this way.”
The university hopes the equipment can be used to diagnose a wide range of diseases from sepsis to bacterial infections such as C Difficile and some cancers. The researchers are using a £500,000 infrastructure grant from the Higher Education Funding Council along with a contribution from the university to equip the unit.
Professor Paul Monks from the university's chemistry department said: "We were all working independently when we had a eureka moment and realised we could combine our studies. We've had all ages of students working on the project. It was very much a team effort."
Scientists combined a range of technologies described by the university as "cutting-edge" to examine patients:
• One group of instruments (developed in the university’s chemistry department) analyses gases present in a patient’s breath.
• A second uses imaging systems and technologies, developed to explore the universe, to hunt for signs of disease via the surface of the human body.
• The third uses a suite of monitors to look inside the body and measure blood-flow and oxygenation.
Coats added: “Ultimately in the longer term we would aim to work towards something like the “tricorder” device seen in futuristic science series like Star Trek. What we are developing so far is more like a first attempt at the medical bed in the sci-fi series.”
According to Coats, early disease detection often leads to better outcomes. This technology could make for quicker and more patient-specific diagnoses.
He said: “I am a specialist in emergency medicine and we are starting the project in this area. But it could also be valuable elsewhere in hospitals and in GP surgeries and perhaps even in a future generation of ambulances. We are talking to industrial partners who might get involved in commercialising this work as the project matures.”