Seeing with your ears – new device offers alternative to blind people

July 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
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A device that trains the brain to turn sounds into images could be used as an alternative to invasive treatment for blind and partially-sighted people researchers in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath have found.

The vOICe sensory substitution device helps blind people to use sounds to build an image in their minds of the things around them.

A research team, led by Dr Michael Proulx, looked at how blindfolded sighted participants responded to an eye test using the device.

They were asked to perform a standard eye chart test called the Snellen Tumbling E test, which asked participants to view the letter E turned in four different directions and in various sizes. Normal, best-corrected visual acuity is considered 20/20, calculated in terms of the distance (in feet) and the size of the E on the eye chart.

The participants, even without any training in the use of the device, were able to perform the best performance possible, nearly 20/400. This limit appears to be the highest resolution currently possible with the ever-improving technology.

Dr Michael Proulx said: “This level of visual performance exceeds that of the current invasive technique for vision restoration, such as stem cell implants and retinal prostheses after extensive training.

“A recent study found successful vision at a level of 20/800 after the use of stem cells. Although this might improve with time and provide the literal sensation of sight, the affordable and non-invasive nature of The vOICe provides another option.

Sensory substitution devices are not only an alternative, but might also be best employed in combination with such invasive techniques to train the brain to see again or for the first time.”

The findings are reported in the paper How well do you see what you hear? The acuity of visual-to-auditory sensory substitution, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, as part of a special topic in Cognitive Science on synaesthesia research.

The research team included the inventor of The vOICe sensory substitution device, Dr Peter Meijer of The Netherlands, and Alastair Haigh and Dave Brown of Queen Mary University of London.

Read more here


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New £715K laboratory to advance cell research

July 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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A new £715K laboratory at the University of Bristol aims to equip scientists in the South West with the facilities they need to carry out the latest techniques in cell biology research.

A £715,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation, coupled with significant investment from the University of Bristol, has enabled the refurbishment of space in the University’s School of Medical Sciences to provide a state-of-the art laboratory space for cell biologists.

The facility will house three research teams, led by Professor George Banting, Professor David Stephens and Dr Jon Lane, who share a common interest in understanding the molecular mechanisms that underlie cell function — how the tens of thousands of individual components within a cell work together for the cell to do its job.

Professors Banting and Stephens will use the facility to study how proteins are delivered to the right place(s) within cells, how they are exported from cells, and how cell membranes are organised. This research is fundamental to cell biology as it has implications for a range of disease states as well as for tissue organisation and responses to pathogen (bacterial and viral) infection.

Dr Lane’s lab applies an understanding of membrane and cytoskeletal dynamics to “autophagy” — a process of cellular quality control that is upregulated during cell stress. This process is vital for normal organismal development, but can give rise to degenerative diseases and cancer if it goes wrong.

Professor Leo Brady, Head of the University’s School of Biochemistry said: “Cells are the building blocks of most forms of life. This investment from the Wolfson Foundation helps to keep Bristol at the cutting edge in cell biology research.”

The refurbishment also provides bespoke space for sophisticated microscopy systems that have been purpose built within the Stephens and Lane research groups. These systems complement the excellent imaging equipment available in the nearby Wolfson Bioimaging Facility – this unique facility was funded from a £1 million investment from the Wolfson Foundation and completed in 2008. It is regularly used by around 100 research groups across the University. It is situated is in close proximity on the same floor as the new laboratory space.

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Bristol Heart Institute to trial new tool to combat high blood pressure

June 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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Doctors at the Bristol Heart Institute (BHI) are the first in the South West to offer patients with high blood pressure the opportunity to control their condition with a new type of treatment.

The research study is being undertaken at the Bristol Heart Institute and hopes to add to the body of research around a treatment called renal denervation. The team comprises doctors and researchers from the Bristol Heart Institute, Dr Angus Nightingale and Dr Andreas Baumbach; the University of Bristol, ProfessorJulian Paton and the Richard Bright Renal Unit, Professor Steven Harper.

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a condition where the force that blood is exerting on the walls of the arteries of the body is higher than desirable. When left untreated this can significantly increase the patient’s risk of stroke, heart failure and chronic kidney disease.

High blood pressure afflicts one billion people worldwide and its prevalence increases with age, obesity and sedentary lifestyles. Around 10- 20 per cent of patients with the condition are unable to reach their target blood pressure even though they have been prescribed drug treatments. For these patients renal denervation may help.

The procedure involves severing the nerves that connect the kidneys to the brain and carry signals to control blood pressure. A wire is passed into the patient’s blood vessels feeding the kidney and the tip of the wire is heated to burn the nerves running along the outside of the vessel. The tiny burns are done in a spiral pattern around the blood vessels until the connections are severed.

Dr Andreas Baumbach, consultant cardiologist at the BHI and Tutor in Cardiac, Anaesthetic and Radiological Sciences in the School of Clinical Sciences, said: “This is a fascinating new way of dealing with hypertension. Research results published in The Lancet show that patients who had the procedure saw their blood pressure drop by around 20 per cent and blood pressure seems to fall continuously even after two years. We are very keen to further develop this intervention and find out, in which patients it works best and how to predict a successful treatment.”

Dr Angus Nightingale, consultant cardiologist at the BHI, said: “Recent results presented at the American College of Cardiology meeting, suggest that this treatment may be an effective way of reducing blood pressure in a group of people that we have found hard to treat in the past.

“The research we are doing brings together doctors from across Bristol including GPs and specialists. This is a great example of doctors from the Bristol Heart Institute and scientists from Bristol University are making available cutting edge technology to people in the South West.”


Bristol hospitals team with NPL to make breast cancer detection more reliable

March 3, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
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Initial tests show promising results for new ultrasonic screening technique

The main hospitals in Bristol are working with the National Physical Laboratory on a  initial trial of a new, potentially more reliable, technique for screening breast cancer using ultrasound. The team at NPL are now looking to develop the technique into a clinical device.

“Our initial results are very promising. Whilst it’s early days, we’re very excited about its potential and with the right funding, support and industry partners, we may well have something here which could have a huge and positive impact on cancer diagnosis and the lives of many thousands of women,” said Dr Bajram Zeqiri, who leads the project at NPL.

The project was funded by the research arm of the NHS, the National Institute of Health Research, under its Invention for Innovation funding stream and co-funded by the NPL Strategic Research Programme. University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust is a leading UK centre in breast screening using ultrasound and partnered with NPL on the initial tests. They are now working on a demonstrator and will look to work with a manufacturer to commercialise the technology.

Around 46,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK every year, mostly using breast screening based on X-ray mammography. Only about 30% of suspicious lesions turn out to be malignant. Each lesion must be confirmed by invasive biopsies, estimated to cost the NHS £35 million per year. Ionising radiation also has the potential to cause cancer, which limits the use of X-rays to single screenings of at risk groups, such as women over 50 through the National Breast Screening Programme.

There is a compelling need to develop improved, ideally non-ionising, methods of detecting breast lesions and solid masses. Improved diagnosis would reduce unnecessary biopsies and consequent patient trauma from being wrongly diagnosed.

Ultrasound ticks many of the boxes: it is safe, low cost, and already extensively used in trusted applications such as foetal scanning. However the quality of the images is not yet good enough for reliable diagnoses.

Part of the problem lies with the current detectors used. Different biological tissues have different sound speeds, and this affects the time taken for sound waves to arrive at the detector. This can distort the arriving waves, in extreme cases causing cancellation them to cancel each other out. This results in imaging errors, such as suggesting abnormal inclusions where there may be none.

The new method works by detecting the intensity of ultrasonic waves. Intensity is converted to heat that is then sensed by a thin membrane of pyroelectric film, which generates a voltage output dependant on the temperature rise. Imaging detectors based on this new principle should be much less susceptible to the effects caused by the uneven sound speed in tissues.

This technique, when used in a Computed Tomography (CT) configuration, should produce more accurate images of tissue properties and so provide better identification of breast tissue abnormalities. The aim of tomography is to produce a cross-section map of the tissue, which describes how the acoustic properties vary across the tissue. Using this map, it is possible to identify abnormal inclusions.

An initial feasibility project has proved the concept by testing single detectors using purpose-built artefacts. These artefacts were designed to include well-defined structures, enabling the new imaging method to be compared with more conventional techniques. The results confirmed that the new detectors generated more reliable maps of the internal structure of the artefacts than existing techniques.

NPL is now seeking funding to develop the work further. They hope to produce a demonstrator using a full array of 20 sensors, which should allow more rapid scanning and move the idea towards a system which might eventually be used clinically. It is hoped that this will provide both a suitable resolution and fast enough scanning to become a viable replacement for current clinical scanners.

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Bath scientists find ‘switch’ that could help design new vaccines and treatments for auto-immune diseases

May 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Researchers at the University of Bath have determined a new structure of an important complex in the human immune system that could be the key to designing vaccines and treatments for autoimmune diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS).

Dr Jean van den Elsen of the University of Bath and Dr David Isenman of the University of Toronto show how a new understanding of the structure of this immune system complex has important medical implications. An atomic structure of the complex, which is key to the development of immunity against microbial pathogens and a potential target for the treatment of autoimmune diseases such as MS and SLE, was first published in Science in 2001, but it was recently determined to be incorrect by the two researchers.

Dr van den Elsen and Dr Isenman have spent a decade studying the complex and decided to reanalyse its structure to develop a correct understanding of its atomic details. “The research looks at a complex between two proteins, one from the complement system – a part of our innate immune system that is present from the beginnings of our lives – and another from the adaptive immune system,” said Dr van den Elsen. “It has become understood in recent years that the complement system also has a role in ‘kick-starting’ the adaptive immune system – the part of our immune system that reacts to pathogens as we are exposed to them, by developing antibodies.”

The researchers focused on a particular protein, C3, in the complement system and its molecular partner complement receptor 2 (CR2) on the surface of B cells, the antibody producing cells of the adaptive immune system.

C3 breaks down to produce a fragment called C3d when attached to a pathogenic antigen which is then able to act as a ‘bridge’ between the innate and adaptive immune systems by connecting the antigen recognition entity of the B cell (the B cell receptor, BCR) with the complement receptor.

This then boosts the immune system by increasing the production of antibodies that attack the pathogen.

The interaction between C3d and CR2 therefore acts to increase the sensitivity at which a pathogen is recognised and reacted to in the body, which is essential in keeping us healthy from disease.

This characteristic has important implications for the design of new vaccines against diseases caused by microbial pathogens

However, this process can go wrong, with the immune system mistaking a part of the body as a pathogen and attacking it, resulting in an autoimmune disease.

Dr Isenman said: “To treat antibody-mediated autoimmune diseases there is a potential to target the ‘bridging’ action of C3d with CR2, through designing drugs that would inhibit the interaction.

“However, due to the misunderstandings caused by the previous structure of the complex, over the past ten years progress in this field has been delayed.”

The findings will end a decade-long controversy regarding the structure of this important part of the immune system, and marks a turning point in science’s ability to develop treatments for a subset of autoimmune diseases.

Dr van den Elsen said: “The new structure is very different to the previous one, but its features conform to all existing biochemical data.

“With the issues relating to the structure of this complex now resolved we hope to take our research forward and use this as a platform to design inhibitory compounds that may be useful in treating antibody-mediated autoimmune diseases.”

The authors of the current study recognise that this goal will not be easy to achieve and that there is a great deal of research still to be done.

However, this discovery is a key milestone in the development of a treatment for antibody-mediated autoimmune diseases and the structural scaffold on which all future progress is based is now firmly in place.



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£2 million for brain research in Bristol

May 3, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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A University of Bristol academic has been awarded over £2 million by the Medical Research Council (MRC) to look into the neural network basis of learning, memory and decision-making in health and disease.

The majority of the grant will fund Dr Matt Jones’ MRC Senior Non-clinical Research Fellowship, entitled ‘Control of neuronal networks and cognitive behaviour by deep brain, transcranial and optogenetic stimulation’.

“Your brain is constantly doing sums, weighing-up past experience and the current situation in order to decide how best to behave.  Unfortunately, patients with brain diseases like schizophrenia have trouble coping with these decisions that most of us take for granted.  Electrical activity in different parts of their brains becomes subtly uncoordinated, making it difficult to see the wood for the trees,” said Dr Jones, Senior Research Fellow in the University’s School of Physiology and Pharmacology.

“This project will use stimulation techniques designed to control the brain’s electrical signalling (very carefully – you wouldn’t notice if it was done to you) to see if we can re-coordinate brain activity at important times such as during decisions and therefore improve cognitive performance,” he said.

In a second MRC-funded project led by co-applicants Professors Lawrence Wilkinson, Mike Owen and Mick O’Donovan of Cardiff University, Dr Jones’ lab will contribute to a study of schizophrenia risk genes.  Understanding the genetic basis of the disease is central to designing new therapies.

Dr Jones said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to unite the internationally recognised strengths of Cardiff and Bristol’s geneticists and neuroscientists.  This project evolved from a pilot funded by the Severnside Alliance for Translational Research (SARTRE), and we are delighted that the MRC continues to recognise what hotbed of translational neuroscience Bristol and Cardiff represent.”

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Bristol’s first Health Innovation Showcase

March 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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A unique exhibition, the first of its kind to be held in Bristol, will showcase the outstanding health innovation achievements in the city and offer a glimpse into the future at what new developments might bring.

The Bristol Health Innovation Showcase is the first exhibition from BRIG-H (Bristol Research and Innovation Group for Health), a partnership of  universities and NHS Trusts committed to improving the health of people in Bristol and beyond through research, innovation and closer collaboration.

The Showcase will take place at UWE’s Exhibition and Conference Centre on Wednesday 30 March from 5.30 to 8.30 pm.

The event will provide an opportunity for professionals and members of the public to see first hand 30 exciting innovations on display which have been developed by members of the partnership.  Clinicians, researchers, innovators and entrepreneurs behind the latest developments and innovations will be on hand to answer questions and explain their inventions, new procedures and advances in health services.

The BRIG-H partners are: the University of Bristol, University of the West of EnglandAvon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership NHS TrustNorth Bristol NHS TrustUniversity Hospitals Bristol NHS Trust, in association with Bristol City CouncilNHS North Somerset, and NHS South Gloucestershire.

Scientists, clinicians, and health executives from these organisations have worked together to create new innovations and processes that have benefited health in Bristol.

Deborah Evans, Chief Executive NHS Bristol and Chair of the Bristol Health Leadership Executive, said: “We know that Bristol is regarded as a beacon of innovation.  Innovation in health is changing the lives of patients and the city: inventions, research, new companies, treatments, devices and tools are transforming the care and quality of the lives of patients. This event is an ideal opportunity to be inspired by examples of Bristol innovations that have changed people’s lives and talk to the people who have made it happen.”

Professor Richard Luxton, Director Institute of Bio-Sensing Technology, UWE, said: “This event demonstrates how the partners working together can make huge gains.  We want to encourage other researchers and clinicians to get involved in innovation and applications for their research.  There are many projects which would not have happened without the expertise and innovation of both universities, and the support of the NHS Trusts.  We hope this event will show just how much we have achieved together, and the enormous potential there is in the city for further innovation and health improvement in the city in the future.”

The innovations on display range from medical innovations, through to novel improvements to service delivery and community health initiatives. Innovations on display include:

The TOBY trial: – A new treatment pioneered by Professor Marianne Thoresen (University of Bristol) with partners North Bristol Trust and funded by the Medical Research Council, Olympic Medical and SPARKS aims to prevent brain damage caused by lack of oxygen (Asphyxia) at birth by giving cooling treatment within the first six hours of life.  The novel treatment lowers the affected babies’ body temperature to 33.5°C and induces hypothermia for 72 hours before gradually rewarming the baby in intensive care.  After clinical trials the treatment was introduced in Bristol’s two neonatal intensive care units in 2006 and 60 per cent of babies now survive without significant injury compared to 30 per cent previously in Bristol.  In May 2010 the treatment was recommended by NICE for asphyxiated babies.  Professor Thoresen is now working with Professor John Dingley (Swansea University) and University Hospitals Bristol NHS Foundation Trust to improve the prognosis for these babies even further by adding inhaled Xenon gas to the cooling regime.

Adults with Asperger Syndrome: plugging the service gap – The Bristol Autism Spectrum Service (BASS) was established to fill the service vacuum for adults with Asperger Syndrome who are unable to access support from mainstream services.   It has received national recognition as an example of best practice and contributed to the government’s strategy for adults with autism. The service model is being replicated in other UK regions.  BASS facilitates assessment and diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome for adults, provides a programme of post-diagnostic support and provides training for mainstream providers. By plugging the service gap for adults with Asperger Syndrome the new service helps to improve mental wellbeing and life outcomes for individuals. Training has been delivered to 500 health and social care professionals, employment agencies and JobCentre Plus staff.  The project leaders from Bristol Autism Spectrum Service, AWP are: Dr Ian Ensum, Matt Trerise, Annie Alexander, Amy Baddeley, Dr Rona Aldridge, Dr Peter Carpenter, Simon Allen and Gemma Allen.

OdoReader – Diagnosing bacterial infections at the bedside – OdoReader  is a prototype device which accurately and rapidly identifies disease causing bacteria in diarrhoea such as the bacterium Clostridium difficile, which is highly infectious and causes a severe form of diarrhoea.  OdoReader captures and analyses the chemicals in the smell of the diarrhoea and is able to give an accurate diagnosis within 20 minutes.  This new prototype device is robust and reliable and can help prevent the spread of infection. There are plans to develop similar devices for other infections and this device is ideal for use in the developing world.  The project leaders are Professor Chris Probert, (University of Bristol) and Professor Norman Ratcliffe (UWE) collaborating with North Bristol NHS Trust and University Hospitals Bristol NHS Trust.  OdoReader is being developed with the support of the Wellcome Trust and will be ready for launch in 2013.

The BRIG-H consortium will also be hosting a Health Innovation Challenge during the afternoon before the exhibition, bringing together scientists, researchers, clinicians, patient representatives and others from Bristol, to generate new ideas and facilitate  collaborations and initiatives to improve health in the city.

Medical electronics spotlight in Bath

March 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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i-Med: How medical electronics will deliver patient power

Thursday, 24 March 2011 and Friday, 25 March 2011, Bath Ventures Innovation Centre, Broad Quay, Bath, BA1 1UD

Experts in medical electronic systems are gathering in Bath next week for the SiliconSouthWest iMed seminar. This looks at the increasingly important area of medical electronics and applications, particularly with the use of wireless networks. Speakers from the NHS, silicon and embedded systems companies and applications developers will explore the opportunities for developing the next generation of medical systems and their place in the healthcare ecosystem.

Confirmed Speakers:

Plus healthcare expert panel led by Dr Nigel Harris, Director, Bath Institute of Medical Engineering

  • Stephen Hope, Docobo
  • Angus Donald, NHS Innovations South West
  • David Rogers, Ex President and Chief Executive, Lucent EMEA

Register Here





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£1.5million medical exhibition opens in Bristol

March 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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A permanent £1.5million exhibition all about the human body and the brain opens in Bristol

Work starts on Large Animal Centre

February 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
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Work is starting on a state-of-the-art surgical facility for the treatment of large animals such as sick horses and farm animals, which will be unique to the region and will provide the best possible medical and surgical treatment for all patients as well as researching new procedures and approaches.

The Large Animal Centre, to be known as the Alborada Building, is part of the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences at Langford. The Donkey Sanctuary, a UK based charity working to improve conditions for donkeys and mules internationally, have provided the funding for the internal work of the Large Animal Centre.

The new surgical facility, as well as treating sick horses and farm animals, will also provide space for teaching advanced clinical techniques to an increasing number of undergraduate and postgraduate students. The investigation, diagnosis and treatment of patients at the Large Animal Centre have several important welfare considerations and the collective clinical expertise provides a central referral service to practitioners.

“The Large Animal Centre will house surgical and treatment facilities that will be unique to the region and confirm the University’s Veterinary School as a centre of excellence for the treatment and care of horses and farm animals, the training of undergraduate and postgraduate veterinary surgeons, and the development of welfare research,” said Professor Jo Price, Head of the School of Veterinary Sciences. “The wider horse and farm animal population also has much to gain from the development of clinical facilities and expertise at the new centre.”