Medical marvels from space

Thu, Oct 11, 2012, 01:00

MEDICAL DIAGNOSTICS and the detection of bootleg whiskey are not commonly associated with advances in space exploration. However, scientists are starting to apply space-age solutions to more down-to-earth problems.

“Our prime aim is not to analyse whiskey,” says Prof George Fraser, Director of the Space Research Centre (SRC) at the University of Leicester. “However, from our astronomical projects we have found a way to tackle the identification of counterfeit whiskey.”

The detector, a spectrometer that analyses incoming light, was originally designed and built by the SRC for the Faulkes Telescope. The device was redesigned to help identify counterfeit medicines, and, more recently, to detect fake whiskey.

The technique relies on white light passing through an unopened whiskey bottle. The instrument, Spectral-ID, records subtle differences between the characteristics of light reflected from the liquid in the bottle to determine if it is genuine.

The Space Science and Instrumentation group in the SRC traditionally develops and builds equipment to monitor our planet, explore our solar system and observe deep space.

However, around 20 per cent of the centre’s total funding is directed towards developing commercialisation projects, such as Spectral-ID. Commercialisation of research is seen as a way of retaining specialist skills and continuing innovation in the department.

“Science is primary, technology is secondary and the spin-off applications run alongside these,” says Fraser.

The centre also attempts to apply its technological advances in other areas including bioscience and healthcare. An example is a cross-departmental effort to develop a Star Trek-style sick-bay in the accident and emergency department at the Leicester Royal Infirmary. While a long-way off from Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy’s hand-held tricorder, this diagnostics bay is able to perform a vast number of non-invasive tests in a matter of minutes.

It includes cameras – more typically used in planetary exploration and space telescopes – to image the patient in different light wavelengths. The data is used to identify conditions, such as yellowing skin, which is an indicator of liver disease. In combination with a suite of other gadgets that analyse breath and monitor real-time blood flow, this high-tech bay quickly assesses a patient’s health.

“We have a moral obligation in exploiting the potential of space-derived instrumentation. From our own x-ray astronomy instrumentation, we have developed a miniature gamma-ray camera,” says Fraser.

This medical marvel can detect the gamma-emitting radioisotope tracers that, when injected into a patient, bind to tumours. “It has the capability to detect cancer tumours non-invasively, helping to reduce the cost and trauma of surgical procedures,” says Fraser.

The centre has more recently extended its expertise to small businesses, promoting regional innovation through the Space Ideas Hub. “By working with regional companies, we understand the challenges they face and can use the knowledge we gain from our pure and applied research to find solutions to move their business forward,” says Dr Andy Powell, a Hub project engineer.

“This has the twin effect of increasing the wealth and competitiveness of the region and helps the university deliver research that has measurable impact. This helps the university bring in further research funding, which also contributes to the region’s growth.”

The Hub has recently been working with a Leicestershire business that has developed a treatment that makes any surface permanently antibacterial. The Hub will work with the client to test the performance of its products and methods to check that the coating has been applied consistently.

From astronomy to building harbour walls

COLLIDING galaxies and dark matter may seem light years away from computer games and climate change, but abstract science often has common applications. Dublin-born scientist Dr Mark Wilkinson, at the University of Leicester, is investigating galaxy formation and evolution, with a focus on understanding dark matter. However, research by Wilkinson and the theoretical astrophysics group has value in understanding jet-engine dynamics and developing computer games.

“Dark matter makes up 25 per cent of the mass in our universe, however its nature is not well understood nor have we yet directly detected it,” says Dr Wilkinson. “However, it acts like glue that holds our galaxy together. Without it, it would not have been possible for our sun to form five billion years after the first stars in the Milky Way.”

How do you study the invisible? The answer lies in state-of-the-art computing. Wilkinson and his colleagues write some of the most advanced and detailed computer simulations to trace how gas, dust and dark matter evolved from just after the Big Bang to form the universe we observe today.

The theoretical astrophysics group at the university is also using computer simulations to investigate why black holes can become “super-massive” and to understand colliding galaxies.

This is a more “local” problem we will face in the Milky Way in four billion years, when our galaxy is expected to slam into the Andromeda galaxy, an event that the research group has modelled.

This expert knowledge of analysing fluid dynamical systems can be reapplied to solve less abstract problems. “The expertise we have gained has been used to assist industry applications, for example the design of harbour walls that can reduce the impact of incoming waves,” said Wilkinson.

Although highly trained in astronomical research, many of the PhD graduates from the group end up working outside of astronomy. Almost half the doctoral students go on to apply their skills in industry.

Particularly popular is the computer-games industry – from writing physics engines for games to programming the realistic movement of water. Other members move into research areas increasingly dependant on large-scale computing such as neuroscience and simulating global weather related to climate change.


Becca Wilson is a British Science Association media fellow at The Irish Times

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