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Revolutionary tech in Mars rover could transform disease detection

Southampton researchers are advancing a new technology, already used in space exploration, to search for signs of diseases.

The technology, called Raman spectroscopy, will be on show at the prestigious Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition in London in July.

It is already used in NASA’s rover Perseverance, which is looking for signs of life on Mars.

Looking for life on Mars

The technology is being advanced by Prof Sumeet Mahajan. He is part of the Microbiology, Immunology and Infection theme at the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC).

Raman spectroscopy uses vibrations and light to reveal the 'chemical fingerprint' of a substance. It offers the potential of non-invasive scans to diagnose diseases such as cancers or osteoarthritis.

Prof Mahajan, lead researcher and Professor of Molecular BioPhotonics and Imaging at the University of Southampton, said:

“NASA is looking for molecules that might have represented life, and we are looking for molecules in living patients to diagnose diseases.”

Airport-style scanner for disease

The work forms part of a multimillion-pound programme called InLightenUs. It is based at the University of Edinburgh and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Prof Mahajan is part of the project. Prof Richard Oreffo, Professor of Musculoskeletal Science at the University of Southampton and another researcher in our BRC, is also involved.

“InLightenUs is based on the premise that we can transform diagnostics,” explained Professor Mahajan. “Currently the norm is invasive and takes a long time, for example a biopsy is taken and sent for analysis. Our proposal is to diagnose instantly through Raman spectroscopy and other InLightenUs technologies.

“Our ultimate vision is a walk-through arch, similar to an airport scanner, which would scan your body instantly up to a 10cm depth for all different diseases, providing an immediate diagnosis. It wouldn’t use any biopsies or harmful radiation.”

This vision is for 2050 and beyond, but is expected to begin making an impact before the close of the decade.

“Within five years, I predict we will be using a combination of techniques developed within the InLightenUs programme to scan to several millimetres beneath the skin to help diagnose diseases such as melanoma or osteoarthritis,” said Professor Mahajan.

Prof Mark Bradley, Director of the InLighenUs project, said:

“I am delighted that we are able to share the work and vision of our interdisciplinary research team with the wider public. It shows the power of bringing together the disciplines to enable step changes in health technologies and their application. It is also allowing and growing the next generation of early career researchers.”

Interactive exhibit

The researchers will showcase the technology at The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. Their exhibit will use a replica Mars rover, singing bowls and a ‘Rainbow Resonator’ to show how the technology works.

Members of the public will be able to drive the replica Mars rover over Martian-style terrain. They will also be able to use its integrated Raman spectroscope to hunt for ‘life’.

University of Southampton PhD students Jake Kleboe and Hiroki Cook built the replica rover.

Jake said: “The rover moves across a simulated Mars surface, demonstrating ‘light firing’ laser techniques to identify materials by revealing their ‘chemical fingerprint’. It demonstrates to the public how the Perseverance Rover is using light to detect molecules of life on Mars.”

“We will showcase how innovations in disease detection technology on Earth go hand in hand with amazing discoveries in space,” added Hiroki. “Visitors will be able to play our Hunting for Aliens game by piloting the rover to search for ‘life’, and compete for a spot on the leader board.”

Running a mallet around the rim of the singing bowls makes them hum, in an acoustic portrayal of how vibrations behave. The Rainbow Resonator has balls that vibrate at different frequencies according to the colour of the light behind them. This shows how different molecules vibrate and scatter different colours.

People will also be able to take ‘biopsies’ from mannequin patients. They will then be able to use ‘Dr Raman’, a semi-automated microscope, to determine which tissues are healthy and diseased.

There are a total of nine exhibits at the event, which typically attracts more than 13,000 visitors. It will take place at the society’s headquarters in central London from 4 to 9 July.

Image: Hiroki Cook, Professor Sumeet Mahajan and Jake Kleboe with the replica Mars rover. Image credit: University of Southampton


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