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ICURe Cohort 38

Project summaries

11 exciting and commercially-promising research projects were selected to participate in ICURe Cohort 38.

Aqua-mining for a circular economy: Cleaning wastewater by recovering valuable metals

Early Careers Researcher: Christian Peters, University of Oxford

The discharge of untreated wastewater is one of the most serious sources of freshwater pollution. Among the harmful contaminants contained in wastewaters are often valuable and strategically important metals (e.g., gold, platinum, rare-earth metals), which are generally not effectively recovered but instead lost. An alternative to discharging these harmful metals into aquatic ecosystems is using Selox – a technology capable of selectively recovering metals from extremely difficult to treat waste streams at a cost, purity and speed not attainable using competing technologies. Mining valuable metals from wastewater using Selox not only combats freshwater pollution but also turns effluent treatment plants into ‘resource factories’. The recovered metals can be directly recycled and reused in industry, which not only alleviates supply concerns but also lowers the environmental footprint of the mining/refining industries used in their original production. Selox is a group of uniquely functionalised polymers that are mixed into the wastewater stream to selectively capture the desired target metals. Once the polymer is fully loaded by the target metal, it is flocculated and retrieved using filtration leaving behind clean water free of target metals. The metal ions are then stripped from the polymer via pH adjustment and recovered in a concentrated salt form for recycling. The metal-free Selox polymer is a green material that can be directly recycled and reused.

Bacterial flagellar motor as a multimodal biosensing chip

Early Careers Researcher: James Flewellen, University of Edinburgh

A biosensor combines electronics with biological elements for the detection of minute changes in a chemical or physical environment. Its applications include: environmental monitoring to detect toxins (e.g. heavy metals, industrial pollutants); pharmacological screening of novel drug targets (e.g. antibiotics); and other biomedical diagnostics (e.g. detection of cancer cells). Limitations with the current generation of biosensors include: a slow timescale from signal detection to transduction to the electronics (tens of minutes); detection is low in throughput; and the devices are complex to build. We have developed a novel whole-cell biosensor technology using the rotary output of the bacterial flagellar motor. Our biosensor system uses electrical methods to detect changes in the rotation of the motor as the bacterium responds to its environment. This means our biosensor technology will be faster and more sensitive than the current generation of technologies and the detection will also be much higher in throughput. Our technology promises biosensors that are simpler and cheaper to make, that have a longer working lifetime, and are far more adaptable and customisable than existing ones. We see our biosensor technology underpinning the next generation of biosensors, offering significant improvements on detection sensitivity, cost and device lifetime for current biosensor users. It will also open new applications for biosensor use (e.g. in remote areas).

Dry cream – a waterless technology platform for personal care

Early Careers Researcher: Yan Fen Lee, University of East Anglia

We have developed ‘dry cream’, a paper-like dry sheet containing all the essential ingredients of a cream/lotion used for skincare, that can be rapidly transformed into emulsions with the addition of a drop of water and be used as a cream/lotion. We use a special process to produce the ‘dry cream’ sheets which are made of hundreds of millions of nano-sized fibres that can very rapidly soak up water and dissolve. Within each nano-sized fibre, our technology can ‘freeze’ tiny droplets of oils which are the essential ingredients for creams/lotions. Water is eliminated from the ‘dry cream’ during the production stage and only added at the time of use. It is a revolutionary and first of its kind technology that takes water out of these skincare products. This leads to the superior features of the finished products being light-in-weight, easy to be packaged using sustainable materials, and reducing the use of water, which will all lead to cost-saving and sustainability improvement. More importantly, ‘dry cream’ is safer for the skin than conventional creams. It eliminates the use of preservatives and significantly reduces the use of chemicals, so-called emulsifiers/stabilisers that are essential in conventional creams and lotions products to keep them stable over the shelf-life. Preservatives and emulsifiers/stabilisers are synthetic chemicals with high risks of causing skin irritations, such as allergic contact dermatitis, and altering natural skin resident microflora.

FAST – Flagellar Analysis and Sperm Tracking

Early Careers Researcher: Meurig Gallagher, University of Birmingham

Male infertility affects 1 in 7 couples, is emotionally devastating and requires expensive and invasive treatments. Existing tools can’t measure how sperm tails move, leading to poor diagnostic and treatment success (IVF success rate 31%). Currently, there are very few treatments for the male partner, and even diagnostics are limited. Our technologies address this gap and have the potential to improve treatment success rates. The race to the egg begins with ~39 million sperm in an ejaculate, but only 10s will reach the egg, and 1 can fertilise. Sperm are heterogeneous; just 4% are ‘normal’ in terms of size and shape. Because of this variation, existing tools fail to predict the success of fertility treatment. How sperm swim is the strongest selection mechanism in natural reproduction. As such, sperm tail motion acts as a sensitive assessment of capability and quality. To diagnose and treat male infertility we need to select strong swimming sperm and quantify how tails move and consume energy. We have developed two technologies: the world’s first software to automatically detect flagellar (tail) movement, FAST (Flagellar Analysis and Sperm Tracking); and a microfluidic device to select the best sperm. These technologies will provide greater insight into sperm health than existing tools. We believe this will enable the selection of precisely the best sperm for treatment, lead to higher fertilisation success and provide couples with a greater chance of a healthy baby.

Ferrosecure: new approaches to electronic article surveillance 

Early Careers Researcher: Tom Loughran, University of Exeter

Electronic article surveillance (EAS) is used to reduce theft in the retail sector. Security tags are devices that can be placed on products that will activate a security gate as they pass through it. Industry partners in the retail sector have previously identified several issues with existing tags. Firstly, the effectiveness of existing rf tags is severely reduced when they are placed on metals and liquids. Secondly, the form factor of current devices means that they are difficult to attach to certain products and have a negative impact on their appearance. We have developed three devices aimed at overcoming these issues:

  • A ferrite-filled cavity device (“wrap tag”) consisting of a metallic strip wrapped around a ferrite block. The strip is required to achieve resonance at the industry standard frequency of 8.2 MHz, while minimising the form factor.
  • A ferrite solenoid device (“solenoid tag”), that is smaller than existing devices, while also working on metal. This has specific benefits for aerosol products, being designed to fit within either the plastic cap or the dome at the bottom, thereby providing security without disrupting the appearance.
  • An acousto-magnetic device (“AM tag”) operating at 58 kHz, compatible with existing security gates. Details of the solenoid and AM tag designs have been omitted from the application as we are in the process of assessing intellectual property protection.

Graphene based aerogel

Early Careers Researcher: Gian Piero Malfense Flerro, University of Bath

A novel environmentally friendly manufacturing process has been developed that can be used to make aerogels. Aerogels are synthetic porous ultralight materials used for insulation and soundproofing, derived from a gel, in which the liquid component for the gel has been replaced with a gas without significant collapse of the gel structure. As well as tuneable acoustic properties, ultralight aerogels have other functional properties such as thermal, fire and electromagnetic interference shielding. The coupling of both acoustic and other functional properties provides a material that can have a large impact within many industrial sectors. The aerogels that we have manufactured use graphene oxide/polyvinyl alcohol (GPA) which to our knowledge creates the best acoustic properties for a material with that density, incredibly low at 2.1kg/m3 (currently achieved). The manufacturing process allows for the development of many different types of aerogels, by exploiting the properties of the material composition, which include materials such as graphene oxide (GO), graphene nanoplatelets (GNP), silica, carbon, polymers, and metals. Part of this work has been peer-reviewed and published in A Nature Portfolio Journal, the 6th most-cited journal in the world.

MagMIX: accelerate your research with intuitive magnetic bead separation 

Early Careers Researcher: Julian Alexander Zagalak, The Francis Crick Institute

Magnetic beads are extensively used for purifying biomolecules and are an essential tool in many laboratory protocols: immunoprecipitations, NGS library generation, nucleic acid cleanup, diagnostic tests etc. Current protocols use tube racks embedded with magnets to attract beads to the side of a sample tube. However, this static magnet setup is problematic when homogenous mixing of the beads in a solution needs to be achieved. Traditionally, researchers remove the tubes manually one by one and resuspend the beads using a pipette or flip the tubes to detach beads. This is very laborious, time-consuming, limits experimental throughput and decreases inter-sample and interuser reproducibility. Ultimately, highly trained staff are carrying out redundant tasks. MagMIX, our novel magnetic rack, improves mixing and protocol efficiency by automatically moving magnets in and out of position to prompt the movement of the beads from one side of a sample tube to the other. All samples are mixed in parallel as opposed to sequentially, allowing for higher reproducibility, while reducing bead loss and pipette tip usage (3% and 37.5% respectively). Additionally, beads may be suspended in solution via rapid cycling/alteration of the magnets, a feature we call resuspend mode. MagMIX, unlike competitors, is compatible with multichannel pipettes thereby further reducing the hands-on time by up to 80%, which also allows researchers to process more samples without compromising on output quality.

Medinect Bio – expertise in bench to clinic drug development

Early Careers Researcher: James Bojdo, Queen’s University Belfast

A report by Clearwater International (2019) predicted the global contract research organisation (CRO) market will potentially rise to a $45 billion industry by 2022 with annual growth predicted to rise to 12%. This highlights the shift into outsourcing drug development in pharma and, according to a report by Biotrend (2020), the type of outsourced research has changed from a one-size-fits-all approach to seeking clinically-minded specialised CRO to align with personalised medicine. Medinect will create a highly specialised and streamlined preclinical contract research package that will guide pharma drug discovery to clinic faster and with greater confidence saving time, money and resources.

MRI guided non-invasively activated drug delivery for cancer

Early Careers Researcher: Maral Amrahli Walsh, King’s College London

We have a platform technology that rejuvenates the market potential of many promising cancer drugs due to the MRI guided and targeted nature of the approach, which is non-invasive. We synthesise Gadolinium attached lipids as MRI labels as a part of the thermosensitive and sonosensitive formulations that respond to focused ultrasound (novel medical technology). These chemical entities facilitate the development of more technologies and intellectual properties around the scientific area of non-invasive image-guided activation of drugs.

Pulmonary Hypertension Automated Screening Technology (PHAST)

Early Careers Researcher: Jeff Clark, University of Bath

Pulmonary hypertension (PH) is a rare but potentially deadly cardiorespiratory disease, affecting people of all ages. The current mean time to diagnosis is 2 years, 2 months. If left untreated, patients with PH have an average time to mortality of only 2 years, 6 months. If detected early PH can usually be treated, and in some cases completely cured, but the symptoms are not specific. Therefore, patients will typically be seen by many clinicians before receiving a PH diagnosis. By this point, survivability is severely reduced and treatment options are limited. CT pulmonary angiography (CTPA) scans are routinely taken in the early stages for many potential chest conditions including PH. General radiologists will often miss indirect signs that PH is present. Geometric measures from CTPA exist to screen for PH but are only taken by radiologists in specialist PH centres. If these measurements were routinely and reliably read in every CTPA scan, more patients with PH would be identified at an earlier stage. We are developing zero-click software that uses machine learning to automatically screen for PH in routinely acquired CTPAs, extracting explainable, clinically validated geometric measures. The deployment of such a software product across all eligible hospitals could drastically shorten the time to diagnosis of many patients by ensuring swift referral to a specialist PH service, leading to improved patient outcomes, reduced clinical burden, and improved economic outlook.

Social Games: gaming with an altruistic twist

Early Careers Researcher: James Stallwood, Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton

We have developed a novel and sophisticated mathematical theory that allows us to create interesting scenarios for electronic games, in which cooperation matters in a nontrivial way, and in which players can be carefully nudged (if so desired) to a best possible scenario in which everyone is provided with a fair share. Collaboration and sharing are concepts that are underexplored in the current gaming landscape and are often considered only as afterthoughts. We can provide scenarios in which up to 30 players or more can ponder potential alliances and debate how to divide earnings. Most existing electronic games in the entertainment sector are competition-driven, with a clear winner and losers at the end of the gaming activity. We will transcend these shortcomings and provide an engaging offer that gently nudges players to consider the value of collaboration and fair sharing. In contrast, games that foster and train for collaboration and sharing are generally designed as “serious games” and are usually built for training and teaching activities. These serious games form, together with the broader concept of gamification, a well-established market trend. However, broad acceptance of cooperative and altruistic concepts is severely lacking in the entertainment game sector: the existing offers are too serious and generally geared towards very specific training activities.


If you are interested in any of the projects above, please contact or reach out to the Early Careers Researcher directly.

SETsquared is a partnership between

  • University of Bath
  • University of Bristol
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Surrey