Bowel cancer technology research secures funding



A project to develop a revolutionary new bowel cancer surgery tool that will enable surgeons to carry out operations with far greater precision than ever before has received £628,000 in funding. Once developed, the new technology will significantly outperform conventional, electric-based tools that are currently being used in bowel surgery.

I am confident that we will be able to further develop the technology and improve the life-saving colorectal surgical procedure.
Dr Jon Shephard

A consortium of academic and industry organisations including Heriot-Watt received the three-year grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) through the Healthcare Impact Partnership scheme.

The team will develop a working prototype of a device that combines optical fibres, which have a diameter similar to that of a human hair, with laser technology and a new optical imaging agent (EMI-137) that detects and images cancerous cells within the bowel.

Each year, 40,000 people are diagnosed with colorectal cancer. Surgeons are hindered by a lack of access and visibility in the complex folds within the bowel, which can lead to damage to surrounding tissue and create serious complications such as bowel perforation during an operation.

Currently, the most commonly used surgical method is electro-cautery which uses an electric current to heat the tissue. The new optical device will be much more precise as it will be highly flexible and open up new routes for minimally invasive surgery.

In order to exploit these technological and clinical advances the consortium has established a Healthcare Partnership, bringing together a unique combination of expertise under a focussed EPSRC funding scheme. Led by Dr Jon Shephard, RCUK Fellow and Associate Professor at Heriot-Watt, an expert in the use of lasers in medicine, the consortium also includes Edinburgh Molecular Imaging Ltd, and the NIHR Healthcare Technologies Co-operative based at the University of Leeds.

Dr Shephard said, “In its present state, the surgical tools and medical technology available to perform bowel cancer operations make it hard for physicians to navigate around the organ and identify tumours. This EPSRC funding will allow us to create a steerable surgical tool guided by fluorescent molecular probes, improving the likelihood patients will be treated successfully and minimising the risks of the operation.

“We have formed an excellent partnership working across the project, including experts in high-power laser applications, surgical technologies and molecular imaging. I am confident that we will be able to further develop the technology and improve the life-saving colorectal surgical procedure, which in turn will become transferable to other life-threatening conditions.”