All posts by Elizabeth Allen

Scientists put final pieces into place for seeing cancer with protons

Scientists are currently in South Africa putting together a unique medical imaging platform which could improve treatment for millions of cancer sufferers by making proton therapy a viable option.

Members of the multi-national research team behind the PRaVDA (Proton Radiotherapy Verification and Dosimetry Applications) project, led by the University of Lincoln, UK, are now building the instrument that will produce for the first time detailed three-dimensional images of a patient’s anatomy using protons rather than x-rays.

To produce these Proton CT images, the world-first technology will use the same high energy particles that are used to destroy a tumour during proton therapy treatment.

Like x-rays, protons can penetrate tissue to reach deep tumours. However, compared to x-rays, protons cause less damage to healthy tissue in front of the tumour, and no damage at all to healthy tissue lying behind, which greatly reduces the side effects of radiation therapy.

Led by Distinguished Professor of Image Engineering Nigel Allinson MBE, the PRaVDA team aims to become the first in the world to produce clinical-quality Proton CT imagery. They are currently working near Cape Town at the South African National Cyclotron – a type of particle accelerator.

Professor Allinson said: “Proton therapy is an improved approach for treating challenging tumours especially in the head and neck, and near critical organs. It is likely to become the preferred radiotherapy method for most childhood cancers, as the unwanted exposure to radiation of healthy tissue is much reduced and so the risk of second cancers later in life is also much reduced.

“Having the ability to administer a high dose in a small region is the main underlying advantage of proton therapy, however accurate planning is absolutely essential to ensure that the dose does not miss the target tumour.”

Using protons to form an image of the patient will greatly improve the accuracy of proton therapy. Using current methods, there could be a discrepancy of up to 1cm in terms of where the proton beam hits and releases its energy, destroying cells, after passing through 20 cm of healthy tissue. By using Proton CT, this margin for error can be reduced to just a few millimetres.

The PRaVDA researchers believe that Proton CT will soon be used as part of the planning process for cancer patients, as well as during and after treatment.

“Imaging with protons is challenging, because the individual particles are randomly scattered as they pass through tissue,” Professor Allinson continued. “Millions of protons make up a single image and each particle has to be individually tracked from the point it enters the patient to the point where it leaves. The PRaVDA instrument is therefore one of the most complex medical instruments ever developed, but it is absolutely essential – the uncertainties in where the protons lose their energy and do damage to either tumour or healthy tissue will only be eliminated by using the same type of radiation to image and to treat.”

Proton therapy is rapidly gaining momentum as a cancer treatment around the world. The NHS will open two proton therapy centres in 2018, and up to another four private centres are also planned for the UK.

The PRaVDA consortium, funded by a £1.6 million translation grant from the Wellcome Trust and led by the University of Lincoln, consists of five UK universities, four UK NHS Trusts and Foundation Trusts, University of Cape Town and IThemba LABS, South Africa, and Karolinska University Hospital, Sweden. PRaVDA in South Africa

Mobile robots could help the elderly live fuller lives


Mobile service robots developed by computer scientists at the University of Lincoln could soon be helping elderly people stay independent and active for longer.

A new international project will test the ability of robots to support our ageing populations by assisting residents of care homes in three European countries.

ENRICHME (ENabling Robot and assisted living environment for Independent Care and Health Monitoring of the Elderly) will see service robots integrated with smarthomes – residences which incorporate advanced automation systems to provide inhabitants with sophisticated monitoring and control functions – in order to provide round-the-clock feedback to carers and health professionals. This will enable people with mild cognitive impairments to live more independently, and the robots will also help with activities that can improve quality of life, such as exercise and social visits.

The project, which includes artificial intelligence and robotics experts at the University of Lincoln’s School of Computer Science, will include a large-scale evaluation where robots will be deployed within the extra-care homes of LACE Housing Association in the UK, to care homes in Greece and to elderly people’s own homes in Poland, for one year.

Principal Investigator Dr Nicola Bellotto from the University of Lincoln said: “The system will build on recent advances in mobile service robotics and ambient assisted living to help people improve health and wellbeing. From a technological point of view there will be an intelligent interactive robot that is integrated with a smarthome, communicating with a network of care givers and relatives. This will be of particular benefit to those people who have mild cognitive impairments, for example older people who are still physically healthy but may have early symptoms of dementia.”

ENRICHME will enable caregivers and professional staff to identify evolving trends of cognitive impairments and to detect possible emergencies. This includes monitoring sudden changes in mood which might indicate deterioration, or the need for family or health services to step in.

Dr Bellotto added: “If the robot detects that the mood of the person is particularly low, it might suggest some kind of game or interaction with relatives. It could record information on how the mood changes and provide professional staff with feedback over a period of time, which would be very useful when studying the evolution of particular cognitive impairments.”

The robots will also be programmed to identify individual people in order to provide personalised services for elderly people living with others. New research in the field of adaptive human-robot interaction (HRI) will provide tools for the robots to support cognitive stimulation and social inclusion, which improve over time by learning from and adapting to the state of the user.

Hazel Ashmore, Project Lead Officer for LACE Housing, said: “Our focus at LACE Housing is on doing everything possible to enhance and maintain an older person’s independence and wellbeing, whatever their circumstances.  This is an exciting opportunity to explore the potential benefits of assistive technology, particularly the introduction of robots in this case, to complement our usual operations. We look forward to working alongside the University of Lincoln and with colleagues from other European countries so that we can evaluate and learn more about, and so that our residents may benefit from, the use of such technology in the future.”

ENRICHME includes multi-disciplinary research in geriatrics, gerontology and gero-technology, enabling further studies in social sciences and neuropsychology.

The project is funded with a 4 million Euro grant from Horizon 2020, the EU Framework Programme for Research and Innovation for 2014-2020, of which 540,000 Euros have been assigned to support research at the University of Lincoln.

Lincoln Computer Science team beat the bookies


Racing predictions made by computer science experts at the University of Lincoln and featured on BBC Radio 4 successfully beat the bookies, picking out the programme’s first winner in 15 weeks.

Distinguished Professor of Image Engineering, Professor Nigel Allinson, and Principal Lecturer in the School of Computer Science, Dr John Murray, worked together to predict the winners of two horse races in Pontefract and Doncaster on Thursday 17th September.

Their prediction for the 2:10pm at Pontefract, a two year old horse called Spike, came in as the winner. The race at Doncaster was called off due to bad weather, but BBC producers were quick to congratulate Professor Allinson and Dr Murray on their success.

The academics’ method was based on a research paper by Professor Allinson on Machine Learning and Neural Networks. Dr Murray gathered race data and using the algorithm from Professor Allinson’s paper they ‘trained’ a neural network to ‘learn’ patterns from previous racing data, such as combinations of jockeys, trainers and horses as well as ‘going’, odds and value of race, to establish the best combinations.

Dr Murray entered the data from the relevant race card into their system the night before the race, and the system ‘predicted’ the winner of the race, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

Dr Murray said: “I’m not a gambling man so I didn’t have a flutter, however a number of my colleagues in the university have stopped me today to thank me for the tip for which they did place a bet and won some money. We could produce more tips and try to improve the system, but the one problem we have is the availability of the data. It is ‘out there’ but it is very expensive.”

The feature was part of the BBC’s ‘Intelligent Machines’ series, which explored the ways in which advancements in technology and robotics have changed our world.

The team’s success was picked up this week by The Racing Post, which featured their winning methods as part of the paper’s news round-up this week.

‘Cancer seeing’ technology is one in a hundred innovations to change our world

PRaVDA2 sml

A groundbreaking piece of medical imaging technology that could revolutionise cancer treatment will be featured as part of a showcase of 100 engineering ideas that have changed our world.

A section of the PRaVDA instrument, developed at the University of Lincoln, UK, for enhancing the treatment of cancer using proton beam therapy, will be included in the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) new show wall at its Savoy Place headquarters in London.

The IET is the largest professional engineering institution in Europe and its show wall will be a celebration of engineering ideas that have had the biggest impact on humanity. Other items on show include an internal combustion engine, as designed by Karl Benz, and a mechanical television system, which was masterminded by Logie Baird.

The international consortium of researchers behind the PRaVDA (Proton Radiotherapy Verification and Dosimetry Applications) project is led by the University of Lincoln’s Distinguished Professor of Image Engineering Nigel Allinson MBE.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, he and his multinational team are developing one of the most complex medical instruments ever imagined to improve the delivery of proton beam therapy in the treatment of cancer. The advances they have made in medical imaging technology could make this type of therapy a viable treatment for many more cancer sufferers.

The world-first technology developed by the team uses proton beams to localise treatment, causing less damage to healthy tissue.

Professor Allinson, from the University of Lincoln’s School of Computer Science, said: “It is an amazing honour for our work to be included on the IET’s show wall, and to be up there with some of the all-time greats of engineering innovation.”

The IET’s year-long show wall exhibition is part of a series of initiatives to celebrate the launch of the new Savoy Place venue in London, which officially opens in November 2015. The exhibition will include a layer of PRaVDA’s Proton Tracker Unit, which will feature alongside other pioneering innovations from across the globe.

The PRaVDA research consortium was also recognised by the institution in November 2014, when it won the Model-based Engineering category at the prestigious IET Innovation Awards, which recognise the best global innovations in engineering, science and technology.

Later this year, the PRaVDA team will continue its work by using coveted time on the South African National Cyclotron (a type of particle accelerator), near Cape Town, to try to produce a world-first clinical-quality Proton CT.