Leicester celebrates British Science Week with top five innovations

The University of Leicester is celebrating this year’s theme for British Science Week (5-14 March 2021), ‘Innovating for the Future’, by highlighting the top five innovations pioneered at the University.

Having been at the cutting edge of world-changing research throughout its 100 years, the University of Leicester has played an intrinsic part of some of the most important discoveries and innovations of our time, most notably, the invention of DNA fingerprinting. DNA fingerprinting was invented in 1984 by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys in the laboratories at the University of Leicester, after he realised variations in human DNA could be detected in the form of mini-satellites. DNA fingerprinting is a technique that simultaneously detects lots of mini-satellites in the genome to produce a pattern unique to an individual.

Professor Philip Baker, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Enterprise, said: “We are immensely proud to be a leading research-intensive university, and our pioneering work has helped shape the understanding of our world through discovery and endeavour.

“From breaking boundaries in space research to life-saving interventions for patients, research has been an intrinsic part of our success story and will continue to be so in the future.”

1. 3D printed mask that can detect tuberculosis early

A team of researchers led by Professor Mike Barer are revolutionising the way tuberculosis is diagnosed, through the invention of a 3D printed insert added to a simple face mask, which has the potential to save millions of lives across the world every year through early detection of the disease.

Designed and printed at the University, the insert can reliably catch and retain live tuberculosis (TB) bacteria, after a patient who may have symptoms has worn it for 30 minutes. The inserts can be removed safely and tested for the presence of live and dormant TB. In comparison, the current diagnosis of TB through a blood test can take weeks, and cannot differentiate between live and dormant TB.

2. Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer

The MIXS is an X-ray spectrometer carried on board the BepiColombo mission currently en-route to Mercury. It will be able to report on the surface composition of the planet once the craft arrives in orbit in 2025, and forms part of the UK’s scientific contribution to the mission.

MIXS will analyse the surface of the innermost planet by collecting fluorescent X-rays, emitted by rocks after stimulation by high energy solar X-rays. MIXS will measure those solar X-rays allowing the university to calibrate the results. Analysis of the datasets will reveal the chemical composition of the rocks.

3. First ‘virtual asthma patient’ created

Dr Himanshu Kaul has created a ‘virtual asthma patient’ to participate in clinical trials, to help make more accurate and timely predictions around which new drugs are successful and can offer benefits to patients.

Using agent-based modelling, Dr Kaul is collaborating with experts from the University’s Schools of Engineering and Mathematics and Department of Respiratory Sciences on his pioneering research project, called ‘The Lung Pharmacome’.

The project aims to produce a working mathematical computer patient model by 2024, with the ambition of conducting patient-specific ‘virtual clinical trials’ by 2025.

The initial area of focus will be lung diseases, specifically asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, working with the world-leading team at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.

4. Development of the artificial heart pump

Heart specialists and space scientists developed an artificial heart pump used to treat people with severe heart failure. The left ventricular assist device (LVAD) is often used as a 'bridge to transplant', when patients being considered for a heart transplant are unlikely to survive until a donor heart becomes available.

Heart failure occurs when the muscle has been damaged, for example after a heart attack, and the heart is not pumping blood around the body as well as it should. The LVAD models used to treat patients today are fitted inside the heart and pump blood out into the aorta and saves thousands of lives a year.

5. Tracking the impact of tobacco use on health

The tobacco plant first arrived on Western European shores in the early 16th century, and despite early moral and health objections, it emerged as one of the first truly global, mass consumed commodities. However, little is known about the implications of this rapid diffusion through populations of Western Europe from 1600-1900, and what this means for our health today. 

Through the interdisciplinary analysis of archaeological skeletal remains, this four year UKRI-FLF funded project will track the impact of tobacco use on health in the Post-Medieval period. It focuses on changing disease patterns and explores how socio-economic and political priorities that enabled tobacco commodification, have had a lasting legacy on human health. In doing so, this project will provide a deep time perspective on one of the deadliest habits in human history.