Research director : Professor Christofer Toumazou FRS

Our research at the Centre for Bio-Inspired Technology is focused on the application of microchip based sensing technologies for early screening, detection and monitoring of cancer markers, with the ultimate goal being the development of systems assisting at the point of need aiming for the personalization of cancer therapy. Primary focus is on the areas of:

Breath analysis for oesophago-gastric cancer detection – Only 35% of patients with oesophagogastric cancer are currently treated with curative intent, whereas 15% of those operable patients have Stage I cancer. The five-year survival for oesophageal and gastric cancer is 13% and 18% respectively in the UK, among the worst in Europe, demonstrating the clinical consequences of this diagnostic challenge. Our ultimate goal is to develop a hand-held, Point-of-Care device that can detect and analyse Volatile Organic Components (VOCs) in breath, to evaluate the risk of oesophago-gastric cancer and suggest the need for further endoscopic investigation.

This project is part of an ongoing collaboration with Prof George Hanna from St Mary’s Hospital and his group, world leading experts in breathomics for oesophago-gastric cancer. A series of studies have already been conducted, which have identified statistically significant differences in the concentration of twelve VOCs from three chemical groups (aldehydes, fatty acids and phenols) from the exhaled breath of patients with oesophago-gastric cancer compared to a control group. Our research in the Centre for Bio-Inspired Technology involves the development of a prototype for VOC breath profiling, providing thus information necessary to determine and quantify the risk of oesophago-gastric cancer. Final diagnostic recommendation will be determined using an information theory based machine learning algorithm developed in our group by Dr Nikolic and his research team, which has been successfully implemented on other biological problems, e.g. identification of receptive field vectors (RFVs) for retinal ganglion cell types.

Early detection and therapeutic monitoring of breast cancer – In the UK, the majority of patients with breast cancer have no evidence of metastases at the time of diagnosis. Although surgery is capable of removing the primary cancer, in many patients, cancer cells can seed throughout the body forming micrometastases, not detectable through screening tests. These often persist despite medical treatment given after surgery and can grow and spread over time if left unchecked. Detecting early the presence of micrometastases before relapse occurs is of great importance as it will allow treatment to be tailored to the patients’ clinical profile.

To date, a number of lab-based tests have been developed, primarily for diagnostic purposes, requiring tissue biopsies which are often difficult to obtain and may not be fully representative of the disease due to its inherent intratumoral heterogeneity, or are focusing on NGS methods, which are of high cost and require processing power to analyse genome-wide sequencing data. In contrast, a blood based test or ‘liquid biopsy’ has the potential to detect tumour specific genetic markers found in blood circulation, in a minimally invasive way. Such test could predict the risk of relapse and could be repeated over the course of treatment to monitor drug response and disease progression. This would enable the realization of a more ‘curative’, well-stratified, patient-centric therapy model.

This project is in collaboration with Prof Charles Coombes (Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial College London) and Prof Jacqui Shaw (Department of Cancer Studies, University of Leicester) whose research has shown that tumour specific mutations in circulating free DNA (cfDNA) found in blood plasma, can be used as biomarkers for detection and monitoring of breast cancer progression (from first diagnosis to follow-up), with the potential to differentiate between the period of cancer dormancy and of minimal residual disease. On the basis of this clinically validated work, our research in the Centre involves the development of a microchip-based, sample-to-result, scalable Lab-on-Chip system consisting of arrays of ISFET sensors, which in combination with microelectronics and information processing units will provide a fast and of low-cost solution for early detection of recurrence through precision screening and therapeutic monitoring of the disease.