Process Optimisation, business growth, product development, business improvement practices, engineering solutions, creativity?

Can Trump rapidly deploy his ‘miracle cure’?

By: Nigel Whittle

Head of Medical & Healthcare

9th October 2020

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Life Science

Last Friday Donald Trump was treated with an antibody cocktail made by the biotech company Regeneron. His recovery has prompted him to call for the drug to be made available to all US citizens through an Emergency Use Authorization. However, the safety and effectiveness of the drug have not yet been proven, and there is no way for the President or his doctors to know that the drug had any effect as most people recover from COVID-19.

As the Metro states today: “Trump is just one of 10 people receiving the drug, which is still in the experimental phase and is intended to boost antibodies to fight the infection”. Is it logistically possible to fulfil Trump’s statement and take a drug from small scale testing to Nationwide rollout? In this blog, we unravel a bit of the situation.

What are the options?

There are over 70 different antibody treatments for COVID-19 currently under investigation. In contrast to convalescent serum, monoclonal antibodies (in this case a pair of antibodies developed by Regeneron) are targeted precisely at the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. This approach makes good scientific sense and there are real hopes that it will be effective. Already several groups have published data showing that this biologic treatment can reduce the virus load in the body as well as the time it takes for patients to recover. However, the evidence in patients is very limited and these treatments are still classed as experimental drugs while clinical trials are ongoing.

Biologic Drugs

The development of these types of novel biologics starts with the creation of cells that produce therapeutic antibodies. Through the process of cell expansion, sufficient quantities of cells are then manufactured to supply enough antibodies for testing and support of Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials.

How to scale up?

There are significant challenges with rolling out new biologic drugs, aside from the obvious health risks. Rapidly manufacturing medicine requires physical infrastructure in laboratories, supportive mechanics, bioreactor vessels, filling, packaging and a distribution method.

Stephen Guy, Principal Consultant for Life Sciences states, “Both flask-based and bioreactor technologies are commonly employed for cell expansion, and often the choice depends on the type of cells used. Either way, the physical task of ramping up the production process needs many multiples of any technology and a laboratory supplier list that can fulfill requirements.”

In partnership with Design Momentum, we have been exploring the technology behind new collaborative robots that can automate and semi-automate many of the manual processes presently involved in cell expansion. In addition to speeding up laboratory processes, the robots will remove the difficulties of manually handling heavy consumables during seeding and harvesting. Antibody medicines are exciting in their potential to create novel therapeutics and we are keen to support this endeavour with our innovative technology.

What’s next?

As others have noted, there is a strong argument that it is both bad medicine and bad ethics to give unproven drugs to influential people, when they have not been through appropriate randomised clinical trials. Already people are contacting Regeneron asking to be included in the clinical trials of the drug, and it will be very hard for the FDA to resist calls to fast-track the drug into widespread use. It is worth noting that the Trump administration and Regeneron recently agreed to a $450 million deal to manufacture the drug for public use if Regeneron can get either emergency or full FDA approval.

It is easy to express a desire for something to be done, but the hard work is in the implementation. Investment in new laboratory techniques is required to enable efficient deployment to the general public at scale and within timeframes set by our politicians.

Last Friday Donald Trump was treated with an antibody cocktail made by the biotech company Regeneron. His recovery has prompted him to call for the drug to be made available to all US citizens through an Emergency Use Authorization. However, the safety and effectiveness of the drug have not yet been proven, and there is no way for the President or his doctors to know that the drug had any effect as most people recover from COVID-19.

As the Metro states today: “Trump is just one of 10 people receiving the drug, which is still in the experimental phase and is intended to boost antibodies to fight the infection”. Is it logistically possible to fulfil Trump’s statement and take a drug from small scale testing to Nationwide rollout? In this blog, we unravel a bit of the situation.

What are the options?

There are over 70 different antibody treatments for COVID-19 currently under investigation. In contrast to convalescent serum, monoclonal antibodies (in this case a pair of antibodies developed by Regeneron) are targeted precisely at the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. This approach makes good scientific sense and there are real hopes that it will be effective. Already several groups have published data showing that this biologic treatment can reduce the virus load in the body as well as the time it takes for patients to recover. However, the evidence in patients is very limited and these treatments are still classed as experimental drugs while clinical trials are ongoing.

Biologic Drugs

The development of these types of novel biologics starts with the creation of cells that produce therapeutic antibodies. Through the process of cell expansion, sufficient quantities of cells are then manufactured to supply enough antibodies for testing and support of Phase 2 and 3 clinical trials.

How to scale up?

There are significant challenges with rolling out new biologic drugs, aside from the obvious health risks. Rapidly manufacturing medicine requires physical infrastructure in laboratories, supportive mechanics, bioreactor vessels, filling, packaging and a distribution method.

Stephen Guy, Principal Consultant for Life Sciences states, “Both flask-based and bioreactor technologies are commonly employed for cell expansion, and often the choice depends on the type of cells used. Either way, the physical task of ramping up the production process needs many multiples of any technology and a laboratory supplier list that can fulfill requirements.”

In partnership with Design Momentum, we have been exploring the technology behind new collaborative robots that can automate and semi-automate many of the manual processes presently involved in cell expansion. In addition to speeding up laboratory processes, the robots will remove the difficulties of manually handling heavy consumables during seeding and harvesting. Antibody medicines are exciting in their potential to create novel therapeutics and we are keen to support this endeavour with our innovative technology.

What’s next?

As others have noted, there is a strong argument that it is both bad medicine and bad ethics to give unproven drugs to influential people, when they have not been through appropriate randomised clinical trials. Already people are contacting Regeneron asking to be included in the clinical trials of the drug, and it will be very hard for the FDA to resist calls to fast-track the drug into widespread use. It is worth noting that the Trump administration and Regeneron recently agreed to a $450 million deal to manufacture the drug for public use if Regeneron can get either emergency or full FDA approval.

It is easy to express a desire for something to be done, but the hard work is in the implementation. Investment in new laboratory techniques is required to enable efficient deployment to the general public at scale and within timeframes set by our politicians.

Technology development, gary numan, robots

Are Friends Electric? Our Future Lives with Robots

By: Nigel Whittle

Head of Medical & Healthcare

26th August 2020

5 minute read

Home » Insights » Life Science

The Czech writer Karel Čapek set his play ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ in the year 2000, and in his timeline, robots became cheap and widely available, allowing products to be made at one fifth the previous cost[1]. In our universe, robots have become, if not commonplace, at least an accepted feature of the working environment. From the first examples of automated production lines (perhaps most famously in the Nissan car factory) through to robots designed for delicate surgery, we are becoming accustomed to robots having an increasingly prominent role.

Industrial Robotics

There are clearly tasks for which robots, with their strength and their capability for repetitive exact movements, are much better suited than humans, who may be more suited for skilled tasks or tasks that are non-repetitive. For many years, industrial robots were large-scale production systems operating in isolation, carrying out specific actions, without variation and to a high degree of accuracy, determined by software that specified the exact parameters of movement. These traditional industrial robots were anything but user-friendly – despite being fenced off to keep human workers safe, their inflexibility has resulted in occasional industrial accidents, including the death of workers[2].

Recent advances in technology have allowed robotic systems to be scaled down in size and cost, allowing smaller robotic systems to play a more integrated role in environments such as laboratories and other industrial settings. Totally automated solutions, with little human interaction, are still inherently inflexible and can be very expensive. With safety in mind, a preferred option has therefore been isolated islands of automation, perhaps functioning as a specific workstation, operating independently but which can interact to a limited extent with nearby workers.

In some areas, most notably the pharma sector, widespread adoption of automation has been limited due to concerns over safety when staff are interfacing with robotic systems. This has resulted in most automation systems being housed in large protective enclosures that are costly and take-up valuable laboratory space.

Working hand-in-gripper

But imagine a world in which humans and robots collaborate on a specific project, working together within a shared space, building a device together, or conducting complex operations together. This represents a real step-change in the use of robotic systems, as they begin to perform tasks not normally associated with robots, including customer service, construction, cleaning, cooking, or hospitality.

Such robotic systems, commonly referred to as cobots, are being designed to operate in proximity to humans, collaborate with them, and move around independently in their shared workspace. They are still robots but freed from their constraints, and thanks to their small size and mobility, cobots can be deployed in a range of environments.

Apart from the technical issues of developing such a robot, the biggest challenges lie in ensuring the robot interacts effectively with the human, is aware of the actions being undertaken by its partner and operates at a high level of safety. Cobots must be equipped with safety sensors and software, and are often constructed of lightweight materials, with rounded edges, and with limitations on movement range, speed, and force. Ideally, they slow down when a human worker is close to them, and if they bump into somebody, they stop immediately.

As cobots become more collaborative and more interactive, they will require highly reliable proximity and warning systems, that allow them to sense the presence of a human colleague in their immediate proximity and adjust to avoid collisions. This will result from the addition of sensors and enhanced processing power to make cobots smarter. Our Life Science Partnership is already starting to develop simple robotic systems that use complex integrated sensors to detect and interact with nearby workers, enhancing safety and allowing improved co-working.

Further developments are likely to include improved user interfaces to allow for clear-cut interaction, and perhaps user-ID systems to allow interaction with specified individuals.

Machines Like Me

Such systems will be easy to train in new tasks, thanks to machine learning processes whereby the cobot learns to complete a task through repeated interaction within a dynamic environment. This exploration generates data, which can be used by the cobot to identify the best means to complete a task without recourse to human intervention. As the technology develops then AI systems could be introduced to predict actions and suggest improvements in procedures.

There is no doubt that many of the repetitive jobs performed by humans today will be done by robots tomorrow. But, collaborative robotics demonstrates that such tasks can include highly interactive processes that provide a route to combining the skill that humans can bring with the capabilities of robots. This will allow activities to be conducted more effectively whilst creating more challenging and rewarding jobs in the process.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R.U.R.

[2] https://nypost.com/2015/07/02/robot-kills-man-at-volkswagen-plant/

The Czech writer Karel Čapek set his play ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ in the year 2000, and in his timeline, robots became cheap and widely available, allowing products to be made at one fifth the previous cost[1]. In our universe, robots have become, if not commonplace, at least an accepted feature of the working environment. From the first examples of automated production lines (perhaps most famously in the Nissan car factory) through to robots designed for delicate surgery, we are becoming accustomed to robots having an increasingly prominent role.

Industrial Robotics

There are clearly tasks for which robots, with their strength and their capability for repetitive exact movements, are much better suited than humans, who may be more suited for skilled tasks or tasks that are non-repetitive. For many years, industrial robots were large-scale production systems operating in isolation, carrying out specific actions, without variation and to a high degree of accuracy, determined by software that specified the exact parameters of movement. These traditional industrial robots were anything but user-friendly – despite being fenced off to keep human workers safe, their inflexibility has resulted in occasional industrial accidents, including the death of workers[2].

Recent advances in technology have allowed robotic systems to be scaled down in size and cost, allowing smaller robotic systems to play a more integrated role in environments such as laboratories and other industrial settings. Totally automated solutions, with little human interaction, are still inherently inflexible and can be very expensive. With safety in mind, a preferred option has therefore been isolated islands of automation, perhaps functioning as a specific workstation, operating independently but which can interact to a limited extent with nearby workers.

In some areas, most notably the pharma sector, widespread adoption of automation has been limited due to concerns over safety when staff are interfacing with robotic systems. This has resulted in most automation systems being housed in large protective enclosures that are costly and take-up valuable laboratory space.

Working hand-in-gripper

But imagine a world in which humans and robots collaborate on a specific project, working together within a shared space, building a device together, or conducting complex operations together. This represents a real step-change in the use of robotic systems, as they begin to perform tasks not normally associated with robots, including customer service, construction, cleaning, cooking, or hospitality.

Such robotic systems, commonly referred to as cobots, are being designed to operate in proximity to humans, collaborate with them, and move around independently in their shared workspace. They are still robots but freed from their constraints, and thanks to their small size and mobility, cobots can be deployed in a range of environments.

Apart from the technical issues of developing such a robot, the biggest challenges lie in ensuring the robot interacts effectively with the human, is aware of the actions being undertaken by its partner and operates at a high level of safety. Cobots must be equipped with safety sensors and software, and are often constructed of lightweight materials, with rounded edges, and with limitations on movement range, speed, and force. Ideally, they slow down when a human worker is close to them, and if they bump into somebody, they stop immediately.

As cobots become more collaborative and more interactive, they will require highly reliable proximity and warning systems, that allow them to sense the presence of a human colleague in their immediate proximity and adjust to avoid collisions. This will result from the addition of sensors and enhanced processing power to make cobots smarter. Our Life Science Partnership is already starting to develop simple robotic systems that use complex integrated sensors to detect and interact with nearby workers, enhancing safety and allowing improved co-working.

Further developments are likely to include improved user interfaces to allow for clear-cut interaction, and perhaps user-ID systems to allow interaction with specified individuals.

Machines Like Me

Such systems will be easy to train in new tasks, thanks to machine learning processes whereby the cobot learns to complete a task through repeated interaction within a dynamic environment. This exploration generates data, which can be used by the cobot to identify the best means to complete a task without recourse to human intervention. As the technology develops then AI systems could be introduced to predict actions and suggest improvements in procedures.

There is no doubt that many of the repetitive jobs performed by humans today will be done by robots tomorrow. But, collaborative robotics demonstrates that such tasks can include highly interactive processes that provide a route to combining the skill that humans can bring with the capabilities of robots. This will allow activities to be conducted more effectively whilst creating more challenging and rewarding jobs in the process.


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R.U.R.

[2] https://nypost.com/2015/07/02/robot-kills-man-at-volkswagen-plant/

Coronavirus, people wearing masks, treatment and prevention

The Coronavirus Epidemic – How Worried Should We Be?

By: Dr Nigel Whittle
Head of Medical & Healthcare

31st January 2020

4 minute read

Home » Insights » Life Science

The current epidemic results from infection by a coronavirus, one of a family of viruses that infect the nose, sinuses, or upper throat. Infection causes illnesses that range from the common cold to pneumonia and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The virus is named after its characteristic shape, which under an electron microscope looks like a royal crown with bulbous protrusions around it.1

Most such viruses are not dangerous. However, in early January 2020 the WHO identified a previously unknown type: 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), a new strain not previously seen in humans. The first human cases had in fact been identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, before the cause was known. Initial symptoms of the viral infection included a fever, cough and difficulty in breathing, but in more severe cases the infection led to pneumonia, kidney failure and death.

By mid-January there were over 300 confirmed cases in China and a death count that was in the single digits but rising steadily. Many of those initially infected either worked or shopped in a large market in central Wuhan, which also sold live and newly slaughtered animals, leading to the assumption that the virus had jumped species, a not uncommon phenomenon. Interestingly, a genetically similar viral strain had been identified in a local breed of bats a few years’ previously, suggesting that the virus has jumped at least two species.

Spread of the virus

It is now clear that the virus is capable of person-to-person spreading. Scientists at Imperial College recently estimated that about 100,000 people around the world may already be infected with the new coronavirus and that each infected patient can infect on average 2.6 others – about the same rate as in annual influenza outbreaks. Worryingly there is concern that the coronavirus can be passed on during the disease’s incubation period, which means that someone who is ill but not yet displaying any symptoms could transmit the infection. A current count of more than 100 deaths out of 6,000 reported cases implies a 1.7% mortality rate, compared with seasonal influenza (which causes about 400,000 deaths each year globally) with a mortality rate well below 1%.

First lines of defence

One of the first lines of defence is monitoring airline passengers flying in from areas where the virus is active, often using thermal imaging cameras to detect fever, in an attempt to identify people who have symptoms. The problem is that only those who are already ill will be picked up, although it is thought that the incubation period (how long it takes for symptoms to appear after catching the infection) is days, rather than weeks. More draconian measures such as those instigated by China to effectively quarantine 10’s of millions of people may help to slow the progress of the disease but may not be enough to stop the virus spreading.

Surgical masks to slow the spread?

One of the defining images of large respiratory disease outbreaks is people wearing surgical masks in the street, and this one is no different, most notably in China where they are also worn to protect against pollution. Many other cities in Asia are already reporting masks flying from the shelves, leading to shortages in the shops. But do these masks offer any protection for the wearer? The coronavirus is spread by droplets in the air produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, but it is also spread by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes. This means that it is more likely for a person to become infected if they in close continuous contact with someone who is infected rather than a casual interaction on the street. In reality, the thin material in masks does little to stop respiratory viruses spreading, and masks have to be worn correctly, changed frequently and disposed of safely in order to work properly. There is however some limited evidence that suggests masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions.

Treatment and prevention

As this is a viral disease, antibiotics are not an effective treatment, and standard anti-viral drugs used against influenza will not work. So far, recovery has been very dependent on the strength of patients’ immune systems, and many of those who died are known to have suffered from poor health. Unlike influenza, there is no currently available vaccine, which means it is more difficult to protect vulnerable members of the population. How long will it take to develop an effective vaccine? The US NIH has suggested that a vaccine might be available for testing in humans in about 3 months, which represents an unprecedented speed of development. This has been enabled by technology for rapid genetic analysis of the virus, and prompt action by governments to begin a vaccine development programme.

So what can we do to avoid infection?

To minimize the effects of any respiratory illness, from the common cold to 2019-nCoV, doctors recommend the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Try to avoid close contact with people who are sick, and stay home when you are sick.

Much like SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012, the current coronavirus outbreak has caught local and global health systems by surprise, but it remains to be seen what the final impact of the epidemic will be on the world’s population.

1 For those interested, coronaviruses are enveloped viruses with a single-stranded positive-sense RNA genome, ranging in size from approximately 26 to 32 kilobases, tiny for a living cell but the largest for an RNA virus. The appearance results from the presence of viral spikes which are proteins that determine the virus hoist specificity, and are potentially good targets for vaccine.

The current epidemic results from infection by a coronavirus, one of a family of viruses that infect the nose, sinuses, or upper throat. Infection causes illnesses that range from the common cold to pneumonia and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). The virus is named after its characteristic shape, which under an electron microscope looks like a royal crown with bulbous protrusions around it.1

Most such viruses are not dangerous. However, in early January 2020 the WHO identified a previously unknown type: 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), a new strain not previously seen in humans. The first human cases had in fact been identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, before the cause was known. Initial symptoms of the viral infection included a fever, cough and difficulty in breathing, but in more severe cases the infection led to pneumonia, kidney failure and death.

By mid-January there were over 300 confirmed cases in China and a death count that was in the single digits but rising steadily. Many of those initially infected either worked or shopped in a large market in central Wuhan, which also sold live and newly slaughtered animals, leading to the assumption that the virus had jumped species, a not uncommon phenomenon. Interestingly, a genetically similar viral strain had been identified in a local breed of bats a few years’ previously, suggesting that the virus has jumped at least two species.

Spread of the virus

It is now clear that the virus is capable of person-to-person spreading. Scientists at Imperial College recently estimated that about 100,000 people around the world may already be infected with the new coronavirus and that each infected patient can infect on average 2.6 others – about the same rate as in annual influenza outbreaks. Worryingly there is concern that the coronavirus can be passed on during the disease’s incubation period, which means that someone who is ill but not yet displaying any symptoms could transmit the infection. A current count of more than 100 deaths out of 6,000 reported cases implies a 1.7% mortality rate, compared with seasonal influenza (which causes about 400,000 deaths each year globally) with a mortality rate well below 1%.

First lines of defence

One of the first lines of defence is monitoring airline passengers flying in from areas where the virus is active, often using thermal imaging cameras to detect fever, in an attempt to identify people who have symptoms. The problem is that only those who are already ill will be picked up, although it is thought that the incubation period (how long it takes for symptoms to appear after catching the infection) is days, rather than weeks. More draconian measures such as those instigated by China to effectively quarantine 10’s of millions of people may help to slow the progress of the disease but may not be enough to stop the virus spreading.

Surgical masks to slow the spread?

One of the defining images of large respiratory disease outbreaks is people wearing surgical masks in the street, and this one is no different, most notably in China where they are also worn to protect against pollution. Many other cities in Asia are already reporting masks flying from the shelves, leading to shortages in the shops. But do these masks offer any protection for the wearer? The coronavirus is spread by droplets in the air produced when an infected individual coughs or sneezes, but it is also spread by touching a contaminated surface and then touching the mouth, nose, or eyes. This means that it is more likely for a person to become infected if they in close continuous contact with someone who is infected rather than a casual interaction on the street. In reality, the thin material in masks does little to stop respiratory viruses spreading, and masks have to be worn correctly, changed frequently and disposed of safely in order to work properly. There is however some limited evidence that suggests masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions.

Treatment and prevention

As this is a viral disease, antibiotics are not an effective treatment, and standard anti-viral drugs used against influenza will not work. So far, recovery has been very dependent on the strength of patients’ immune systems, and many of those who died are known to have suffered from poor health. Unlike influenza, there is no currently available vaccine, which means it is more difficult to protect vulnerable members of the population. How long will it take to develop an effective vaccine? The US NIH has suggested that a vaccine might be available for testing in humans in about 3 months, which represents an unprecedented speed of development. This has been enabled by technology for rapid genetic analysis of the virus, and prompt action by governments to begin a vaccine development programme.

So what can we do to avoid infection?

To minimize the effects of any respiratory illness, from the common cold to 2019-nCoV, doctors recommend the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Try to avoid close contact with people who are sick, and stay home when you are sick.

Much like SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012, the current coronavirus outbreak has caught local and global health systems by surprise, but it remains to be seen what the final impact of the epidemic will be on the world’s population.

1 For those interested, coronaviruses are enveloped viruses with a single-stranded positive-sense RNA genome, ranging in size from approximately 26 to 32 kilobases, tiny for a living cell but the largest for an RNA virus. The appearance results from the presence of viral spikes which are proteins that determine the virus hoist specificity, and are potentially good targets for vaccine.

Plextek’s Annual Make-a-thon

Thomas Rouse - Senior Consultant, Medical & Healthcare

By: Thomas Rouse
Lead Consultant

24th October 2019

4 minute read

Home » Insights » Life Science

Thomas Rouse explains what a make-a-thon is and why it’s important for innovation.

What is a Make-a-thon? Well for us it’s a more constructive version of a hackathon, both literally and metaphorically. Plextek’s annual Make-a-thon is a chance for graduates through to senior consultants to work in teams to make amazing creations in a day. Why is this important? As a company grows, activities like Make-a-thons can test our normal working practices, help us to focus on the essentials, evaluate what it means to be innovative and just have fun with our colleagues using lots of cool tools.

The Results:

Team Green UI (Richard Emmerson, Steve Fitz, Ben Skinner and Ivan Saunders) have developed a novel user interface that can tell users the weather using a visual dome display that mechanically points to different weather states: rain, snow, mist, fog, sun, day, night – also a lot more energy efficient than displaying on a screen. Interesting to see what you can do away from traditional display technology using energy-efficient methods.

Team Infant Suffocation ( Polly Britton, Daniel Tomlinson, Alan Cucknell, Edson Silva) have developed a proof of concept for new parents with infants. Monitoring the fluctuation of the infant’s chest (using a soft flexible strap) while breathing, the device would alert the parent if the infant’s breathing became irregular. Measuring the voltage across an electrically conductive material to monitor the breathing, the material’s resistance would change according to the pressure created by the force of an inhale/exhale. A low cost, low power solution that democratises baby safety.

Engineers

Team Posture Detection (Ehsan Abedi, Thomas Childs, Bhavin Patel, Gifty Mbroh) looked at developing a proof of concept that could take readings across a number of different points across the back to detect and alert the user to incorrect posture. A novel use of accelerometers that looks to address the health issues of bad posture, either from sitting or standing, for prolonged periods of time.

Team Microfluidics (Kieran Bhuiyan, Frederick Saunders, Poppy Oldroyd) aimed to demonstrate whether low-cost microfluidic systems can be made using rapid prototyping. A microfluidic channel was made in acrylic and various concentrations of saltwater were supplied to these channels. Measuring the rate of flow demonstrated that geometrically consistent channels could be made using rapid prototyping. The results of which proved that solutions with a higher salinity did indeed have a higher viscosity.

Team Autism EEG (Tom Rouse, Josip Rožman, Glenn Wilkinson, Elliot Langran) have developed a proof of concept system using real-time neurofeedback and a traffic light wristband. The idea is to assist autistic children in identifying emotions, as many have difficulty with this. Brainwaves measured using low-cost EEG sensors and a Raspberry Pi running a Multilayer perceptron (MLP) determined whether Elliot was calm or stressed and gave near-instant feedback. The model had been trained on the day especially for him, based on two 5 minute measurements while he was experiencing different emotions. The device can, therefore, be personalised to both the individual and the concepts they would like to understand.

This year’s make-a-thon was run our Summer student Poppy and myself. Many thanks Poppy!

As you can see, giving a short timeframe can focus the mind to create amazing solutions that otherwise could take longer. Lean working can create innovation where you least expect it!

If you have any questions about any of the projects and would like to know more about any of our projects in the make-a-thon, do get in touch – I’d love to hear from you!

Thomas Rouse explains what a make-a-thon is and why it’s important for innovation.

What is a Make-a-thon? Well for us it’s a more constructive version of a hackathon, both literally and metaphorically. Plextek’s annual Make-a-thon is a chance for graduates through to senior consultants to work in teams to make amazing creations in a day. Why is this important? As a company grows, activities like Make-a-thons can test our normal working practices, help us to focus on the essentials, evaluate what it means to be innovative and just have fun with our colleagues using lots of cool tools.

The Results:

Team Green UI (Richard Emmerson, Steve Fitz, Ben Skinner and Ivan Saunders) have developed a novel user interface that can tell users the weather using a visual dome display that mechanically points to different weather states: rain, snow, mist, fog, sun, day, night – also a lot more energy efficient than displaying on a screen. Interesting to see what you can do away from traditional display technology using energy-efficient methods.

Team Infant Suffocation ( Polly Britton, Daniel Tomlinson, Alan Cucknell, Edson Silva) have developed a proof of concept for new parents with infants. Monitoring the fluctuation of the infant’s chest (using a soft flexible strap) while breathing, the device would alert the parent if the infant’s breathing became irregular. Measuring the voltage across an electrically conductive material to monitor the breathing, the material’s resistance would change according to the pressure created by the force of an inhale/exhale. A low cost, low power solution that democratises baby safety.

Team Posture Detection (Ehsan Abedi, Thomas Childs, Bhavin Patel, Gifty Mbroh) looked at developing a proof of concept that could take readings across a number of different points across the back to detect and alert the user to incorrect posture. A novel use of accelerometers that looks to address the health issues of bad posture, either from sitting or standing, for prolonged periods of time.

Team Microfluidics (Kieran Bhuiyan, Frederick Saunders, Poppy Oldroyd) aimed to demonstrate whether low-cost microfluidic systems can be made using rapid prototyping. A microfluidic channel was made in acrylic and various concentrations of saltwater were supplied to these channels. Measuring the rate of flow demonstrated that geometrically consistent channels could be made using rapid prototyping. The results of which proved that solutions with a higher salinity did indeed have a higher viscosity.

Team Autism EEG (Tom Rouse, Josip Rožman, Glenn Wilkinson, Elliot Langran) have developed a proof of concept system using real-time neurofeedback and a traffic light wristband. The idea is to assist autistic children in identifying emotions, as many have difficulty with this. Brainwaves measured using low-cost EEG sensors and a Raspberry Pi running a Multilayer perceptron (MLP) determined whether Elliot was calm or stressed and gave near-instant feedback. The model had been trained on the day especially for him, based on two 5 minute measurements while he was experiencing different emotions. The device can, therefore, be personalised to both the individual and the concepts they would like to understand.

This year’s make-a-thon was run our Summer student Poppy and myself. Many thanks Poppy!

As you can see, giving a short timeframe can focus the mind to create amazing solutions that otherwise could take longer. Lean working can create innovation where you least expect it!

If you have any questions about any of the projects and would like to know more about any of our projects in the make-a-thon, do get in touch – I’d love to hear from you!

Advanced Technologies in Healthcare

Nigel Whittle - Head of Medical & Healthcare

By: Nigel Whittle
Head of Medical & Healthcare

21st March 2019

4 minute read

Home » Insights » Life Science

Some of the biggest changes in the practice of medicine and healthcare over the past 70 years have resulted from improvements in the way diseases and illnesses can be diagnosed and studied. Innovative technologies now allow doctors to discover increasing amounts of detailed information about both the progression and treatment of disease, allowing new treatment options and care pathways.

The most significant developments which are likely to change the face of medicine over the next few decades include:

  • Enhanced self-management for patients and the elderly through technology support systems to empower understanding and control of conditions.
  • Improved patient access to health service infrastructure through utilisation of remote care and monitoring systems.
  • Further developments in medical imaging and the application of Artificial Intelligence systems to effectively analyse and diagnose conditions.
  • Precision medicine that can target medical interventions to specific sub-groups of patients based on genomic data.
  • Robotic surgical systems that can conduct exquisitely precise operations in difficult-to-reach anatomical areas without flagging or losing concentration.

Self-Management for Patients

Day-to-day physiological monitoring technology, driven particularly by the spread of a variety of consumer wearable devices with communication capabilities, has the ability to collect and integrate health information from a variety of sources, both medical and consumer-based. The next generation of wearables is likely to significantly blur the division between technology lifestyle accessory and medical device, as reliable non-invasive sensors for the measurement of blood pressure, blood sugar, body temperature, pulse rate, hydration level and many more become increasingly implemented within these devices. The provision and integration of these derived complex sets of data has the potential to provide valuable information, that enabling a holistic approach to healthcare. The US FDA is currently working closely with industry to facilitate the introduction and effective use of these more advanced devices.

Enhanced Patient Access

In the UK, the NHS has brought high-quality medical services to every citizen, but often at the cost of long waits for visits to the doctor when a patient is concerned about his health. The introduction of improved access systems, including video-conferencing facilities, electronic health records and AI-powered chatbots, promises to be a powerful and game-changing move. In particular, chatbots systems such as Babylon Health or Ada can provide a highly accessible medical triage procedure, which can alleviate the pressure on over-worked doctors in GP surgeries, and allow those doctors to focus on patients with more serious conditions. With increasing sophistication, these chatbots can potentially provide accurate diagnostic advice on common ailments without any human interaction or involvement. The key concern is, of course, ensuring that the algorithms operate with patient safety foremost, which requires fine tuning to balance between over-caution and under diagnosis.

Medical Imaging and Artificial Intelligence

Following admission to a hospital, a key element of modern medicine is the use of imaging systems for clinical diagnosis, and the main challenge for doctors is to interpret the complexity and dynamic changes of these images. Currently, most interpretations are performed by human experts, which can be time-consuming, expensive and suffer from human error due to visual fatigue. Recent advances in machine learning systems have demonstrated that computers can extract richer information from images, with a corresponding increase in reliability and accuracy. Eventually, Artificial Intelligence will be able to identify and extract novel features that are not discernible to human viewers, allowing enhanced capabilities for medical intervention. This will allow doctors to re-focus on their interaction with patients, which is often cited as the most valued aspect of medical intervention.

Precision Medicine

The current paradigm for medical treatment is changing through the development of powerful new tools for genome sequencing which allows scientists to understand how genes affect human health. Medical decisions can now take account of genetic information, allowing doctors to tailor specific treatments and prevention strategies for individual patients.

In essence, precision medicine is able to classify patients into sub-populations that are likely to differ in their response to a specific treatment. Therapeutic interventions can then be concentrated on those who will benefit, sparing expense and often unpleasant side effects for those who will not.

Robotic Surgery

Currently, robotic surgical devices are simply instruments that can translate actions outside the patient to inside the patient, often working through incisions as small as 8mm. The benefits of this are clear in terms of minimally invasive surgery, and by allowing surgeons to conduct the operations in a relaxed and stress-free environment. At the moment the robot does not do anything without direct input, but with the increasing development of AI systems, it is likely that in 10 or 15 years, certain parts of an operation such as suturing may be performed automatically by a robot, albeit under close supervision.

What will new technology mean for healthcare?

It is fiendishly difficult to predict the impact of innovative technological advances on medical practice and patient care. However, the overall message is clear – improvements in front end technology will allow patients to have a greater responsibility for their own personal health and well-being. Increased access to medical practice through innovative and efficient mechanisms will allow doctors to focus their time on the patients identified as suffering from more serious illnesses. Highly trained AI systems can then complement the doctors’ prowess in identifying and diagnosing particular diseases. Finally, treatment options will be highly tailored to individual patients and their conditions, increasing the cost-effectiveness of treatment.

However, each of these technology developments comes with associated costs and challenges. Not least, new technology could fundamentally change the way that medical staff work, requiring new skills and mindsets to effectively transform medical care into a radically new approach.

For an informative chat on how Plextek can assist with your Healthcare technology project, please contact Nigel at healthcare@plextek.com

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Some of the biggest changes in the practice of medicine and healthcare over the past 70 years have resulted from improvements in the way diseases and illnesses can be diagnosed and studied. Innovative technologies now allow doctors to discover increasing amounts of detailed information about both the progression and treatment of disease, allowing new treatment options and care pathways.

The most significant developments which are likely to change the face of medicine over the next few decades include:

  • Enhanced self-management for patients and the elderly through technology support systems to empower understanding and control of conditions.
  • Improved patient access to health service infrastructure through utilisation of remote care and monitoring systems.
  • Further developments in medical imaging and the application of Artificial Intelligence systems to effectively analyse and diagnose conditions.
  • Precision medicine that can target medical interventions to specific sub-groups of patients based on genomic data.
  • Robotic surgical systems that can conduct exquisitely precise operations in difficult-to-reach anatomical areas without flagging or losing concentration.

Self-Management for Patients

Day-to-day physiological monitoring technology, driven particularly by the spread of a variety of consumer wearable devices with communication capabilities, has the ability to collect and integrate health information from a variety of sources, both medical and consumer-based. The next generation of wearables is likely to significantly blur the division between technology lifestyle accessory and medical device, as reliable non-invasive sensors for the measurement of blood pressure, blood sugar, body temperature, pulse rate, hydration level and many more become increasingly implemented within these devices. The provision and integration of these derived complex sets of data has the potential to provide valuable information, that enabling a holistic approach to healthcare. The US FDA is currently working closely with industry to facilitate the introduction and effective use of these more advanced devices.

Enhanced Patient Access

In the UK, the NHS has brought high-quality medical services to every citizen, but often at the cost of long waits for visits to the doctor when a patient is concerned about his health. The introduction of improved access systems, including video-conferencing facilities, electronic health records and AI-powered chatbots, promises to be a powerful and game-changing move. In particular, chatbots systems such as Babylon Health or Ada can provide a highly accessible medical triage procedure, which can alleviate the pressure on over-worked doctors in GP surgeries, and allow those doctors to focus on patients with more serious conditions. With increasing sophistication, these chatbots can potentially provide accurate diagnostic advice on common ailments without any human interaction or involvement. The key concern is, of course, ensuring that the algorithms operate with patient safety foremost, which requires fine tuning to balance between over-caution and under diagnosis.

Medical Imaging and Artificial Intelligence

Following admission to a hospital, a key element of modern medicine is the use of imaging systems for clinical diagnosis, and the main challenge for doctors is to interpret the complexity and dynamic changes of these images. Currently, most interpretations are performed by human experts, which can be time-consuming, expensive and suffer from human error due to visual fatigue. Recent advances in machine learning systems have demonstrated that computers can extract richer information from images, with a corresponding increase in reliability and accuracy. Eventually, Artificial Intelligence will be able to identify and extract novel features that are not discernible to human viewers, allowing enhanced capabilities for medical intervention. This will allow doctors to re-focus on their interaction with patients, which is often cited as the most valued aspect of medical intervention.

Precision Medicine

The current paradigm for medical treatment is changing through the development of powerful new tools for genome sequencing which allows scientists to understand how genes affect human health. Medical decisions can now take account of genetic information, allowing doctors to tailor specific treatments and prevention strategies for individual patients.
In essence, precision medicine is able to classify patients into sub-populations that are likely to differ in their response to a specific treatment. Therapeutic interventions can then be concentrated on those who will benefit, sparing expense and often unpleasant side effects for those who will not.

Robotic Surgery

Currently, robotic surgical devices are simply instruments that can translate actions outside the patient to inside the patient, often working through incisions as small as 8mm. The benefits of this are clear in terms of minimally invasive surgery, and by allowing surgeons to conduct the operations in a relaxed and stress-free environment. At the moment the robot does not do anything without direct input, but with the increasing development of AI systems, it is likely that in 10 or 15 years, certain parts of an operation such as suturing may be performed automatically by a robot, albeit under close supervision.

What will new technology mean for healthcare?

It is fiendishly difficult to predict the impact of innovative technological advances on medical practice and patient care. However, the overall message is clear – improvements in front end technology will allow patients to have a greater responsibility for their own personal health and well-being. Increased access to medical practice through innovative and efficient mechanisms will allow doctors to focus their time on the patients identified as suffering from more serious illnesses. Highly trained AI systems can then complement the doctors’ prowess in identifying and diagnosing particular diseases. Finally, treatment options will be highly tailored to individual patients and their conditions, increasing the cost-effectiveness of treatment.
However, each of these technology developments comes with associated costs and challenges. Not least, new technology could fundamentally change the way that medical staff work, requiring new skills and mindsets to effectively transform medical care into a radically new approach.

For an informative chat on how Plextek can assist with your Healthcare technology project, please contact Nigel at healthcare@plextek.com

Save

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