Medical marvels from space
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.