Proteus: The Fantastic Voyage to Revolutionary Lung Care

The Proteus IRC is funded by The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
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“As healthcare challenges become more complex, our world-class scientists are finding the next generation solutions.”

– David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science

Lung Disease – A Global Concern

The human body is an amazing, intricate network of organs, blood vessels and nerve cells, all working together in a delicate symbiosis designed to keep us alive – in the time taken to read this article, you will breathe in and out around 75 times without even being conscious of doing so. When this symbiosis is knocked out of balance, perhaps as a result of an invading pathogen or a physical trauma, we suffer illness. Human intervention must then re-route the network through medicines, surgery and therapy in order to make the body well again, and time can be of the essence.

Diseases that attack the lungs are some of the most common in the world: asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia are just a few examples. Currently, diagnosing bacterial infections relies on a slow process of detection followed by biopsy and lab-based culture growth – procedures that are prone to contamination and can result in late treatment. A quick in vivo, in situ method is therefore vital to minimise the disruption to both the analysis and the patient’s wellbeing, and one consortium of scientists are well on their way to developing a novel, multi-layered approach to this – the Proteus project.
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Clinical Lead Dr Kev Dhaliwal explains the idea behind the Proteus project.

Who is Involved?

Proteus is a major EPSRC funded “Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration” (IRC), with major investment from the EPSRC (£11.3M) and the 3 consortium Universities (£3M).

Working directly for Proteus are some 18 postdoctoral researchers and 20 PhD students across 10 research groups. This team of internationally recognised researchers and academics hailing from the Universities of Edinburgh, Bath and Heriot Watt, have been brought together to work towards the common goal of revolutionising how lung diseases are diagnosed and managed within the Intensive Care environment, where patients are most at risk of respiratory failure and bedside care is critical.

Proteus’ world-class standing in fibre optic research, sensing and imaging, signal processing, and clinical care has resulted in the design of a fully integrated system that will provide the necessary rapid and accurate diagnosis of bacterial infection.
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What’s in a Name?

The name Proteus was inspired by the similarities between the methodology and the 1966 film Fantastic Voyage. In the film, a group of scientists developed technology that allowed them to be miniaturised and injected into a body to remove a life-threatening blood clot from the brain. Akin to this, by injecting a fluid containing biological “Smartprobes” directly into the alveoli of the lungs via a microendoscopic fibre bundle, clinicians will be able to selectively tag bacterial membranes and make them fluoresce, thus making them observable.

Providing a real-time view of what pathogens are present and the physiological processes occurring will not only make diagnoses quicker, but will consequently help clinicians to better manage antibiotic use – something which is a growing global concern as antibiotic resistance increases.
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Our Progress

As of January 2017, the team have already demonstrated that the use of a fluorescence-based microendoscopy system is capable of simultaneously detecting several different pathogens in human ex vivo lung tissue. Preparations are now underway to perform the first in vivo human clinical studies, marking a huge milestone in the project timeline.

Team member Dr Bethany Mills has recently been awarded the Women in Molecular Imaging Network Scholar Award at the World Molecular Imaging Congress for her research into how scarred lung tissue can be identified using Proteus technology, showcasing its adaptability for a wide range of uses. The relatively low-cost and continuously increasing sensitivity of the system components means that such a device could even be developed for fields outside of healthcare – and what a breath of fresh air that would be!