Heriot-Watt laser experts support project to tackle deadly brain tumours



Looking at a brain scan
The project will help surgeons make targeted treatment decisions. Photo by Anna Shvets, Pexels.

Scientists at Heriot-Watt University are contributing to a £2 million project to tackle hard-to-treat cancers.

A team in the University’s Institute of Photonics and Quantum Sciences is part of a project led by Imperial College London to develop techniques for the precision removal of brain cancer cells using a laser.

Imperial’s project is one of four which have each received £500,000 funding from the Medical Research Council (MRC) to tackle cancers with poor survival rates.

Lasers have the potential to precisely remove tumour tissue whilst leaving vital, healthy tissue undamaged.

Professor Jonathan Shephard, Institute of Photonics and Quantum Sciences, Heriot-Watt University

Heriot-Watt’s team will provide laser ablation work for the project – this involves removing tissue by exposing it to a laser beam. This part of the process will then be married with Imperial’s technique for diagnosing cancer. This involves using metabolic profiling equipment – tools used for precision analysis of molecules – to provide real-time data on the nature of the cancer, helping surgeons make targeted treatment decisions that prevent the cancer recurring.

The project, called Developing Novel Technology for Data Driven Clinical Decision Making, will focus on a fast-growing and aggressive brain tumor known as a Glioblastoma (GBM).

Dr Lauren Ford, an Imperial College Research Fellow in the Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction is the project lead. She said: "Glioblastoma brain tumours are deadly and incurable. Effective treatment options for GBM are urgently needed. The extent of surgical GBM tumour resection substantially impacts patient survival, but damage to normal brain can severely affect quality of life.”

In all cases, Dr Ford said some cancer cells remain and are treated with radiochemotherapy – but this subsequent treatment only delays tumour regrowth, and patient death, by an average of three months.

Leading the Heriot-Watt team is Professor Jonathan Shephard from the Institute of Photonics and Quantum Sciences, part of the University’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences. Professor Shephard is an Applied Optics and Photonics expert who specialises in developing high power laser processes for surgery and other novel laser processes for medicine.

He said: “The unique proprieties of lasers allow them to be tightly focused and deliver energy that can vaporise material in an incredibly small region without affecting or heating the surrounding area. Lasers therefore have the potential to precisely remove tumour tissue whilst leaving vital, healthy tissue undamaged. In this project, we will investigate fine-tuning the laser parameters to simultaneously remove tissue and generate a vapour plume full of biological information that could be used for diagnosis in a way that current surgical tools cannot.

“The aim is to provide a more complete removal of the tumour and a highly customised treatment pathway to tackle recurrence. Funding such as this scheme, that allow adventurous research ideas, enables us to investigate new combinations of technologies which have the potential to transform cancer treatment in the future.”

UK Science and Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan, said of the funding award: “By investing in high-risk but high-reward techniques – including artificial intelligence – we are backing our ambitious, world class researchers to build on generations of discoveries and give more people a fighting chance to live long and healthy lives.”

The Medical Research Council is a national funding agency that funds research to prevent illness, develop therapies and improve human health.

Dr Megan Dowie, Head of Molecular and Cellular Medicine at the MRC, said: “We look forward to supporting the teams towards achieving real-world impacts, both in a clinical setting and the real hope they may ultimately be able to offer to those suffering from some of the most challenging cancer diagnoses."

Heriot-Watt University is creating a global research institute in Health & Care Technologies to accelerate the adoption of innovative work in the field. This is a significant project in that research focus, which also includes the expertise available through the Medical Device Manufacturing Centre (MDMC). The institute, and a fourth global centre of excellence focused on achieving Net Zero, will join its world-leading research in robotics and AI at the National Robotarium, and Earth and marine geosciences at the Lyell Centre. Together, these institutes are addressing multi-stranded challenges at a local, national and global level.


Victoria Masterson