Two researchers at the University of Birmingham have been awarded funding by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s (EPSRC) Healthcare Technologies Challenge Awards. Their research will look into sperm analysis and cancer detection.

The projects led by Dr Robert Neely and Dr David Smith are among nine recipients sharing in £9 million fund allocated to support a cohort of next generation research leaders to establish a personal programme of high quality, creative, and multidisciplinary research across the EPSRC portfolio, and to build and grow their research groups.

EPSRC’s Chief Executive, Professor Philip Nelson, said: ‘These Healthcare Technologies Challenge Award winners are our future research leaders who will be instrumental in ensuring the UK can meet the 21st century healthcare needs and thrive as a healthy nation.’

Dr Neely said ‘We will develop a new, molecular test that can be used to screen for cancer. The aim is to identify the disease at a much earlier stage than is currently possible, before those at risk have noticeable symptoms of the disease. Earlier diagnosis means more timely, more informed treatment which will ultimately improve a patient's chances of beating cancer.’

The early detection of diseases such as cancer is a significant challenge, yet it also represents a significant opportunity for us to improve healthcare. In the case of cancer, early detection of malignancy can dramatically improve the prospects for those who are diagnosed.  This project will develop biochemistry, analytical tools and state-of-the-art imaging solutions that will allow us to identify diseases like cancer in their early stages of development, in a non-invasive way. The project is a collaboration between chemists, medics and clinicians, and aims to develop simple tests that will improve our ability to treat individual patients.

Dr Smith said ‘We will develop a new diagnostic test for male infertility based on novel imaging, microfluidics, computing and mathematical modelling; this will be the first test that detects which sperm have the 'right stuff' to fertilise: the ability to swim effectively, and with DNA packaged in a way that protects it from damage. The aim is to provide a clinical test that will enable more safer and more effective treatment, and will improve the future health of children born from IVF.’

Infertility affects around one in six couples. Problems with sperm (swimming ability, abnormal shape) are one of the major causes. Treatment is difficult because diagnostics are imprecise; ‘sperm counting’ does not yet make use of cutting edge technologies. This project will bring together expertise from computing, maths, bioengineering and the clinic to develop a new device to examine sperm. The system will detect which sperm have the ‘right stuff’ – the ability to deliver a cargo of safely-packaged DNA to the egg – and to convert this information into better treatment decisions, saving distress and expense, and leading to more healthy births.