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Revolutionising biomedical imaging

Quantum imaging is an emerging approach proving vital to achieving society’s healthcare needs of tomorrow. 

At QuantIC, the UK Hub in Quantum Enhanced Imaging, researchers are working together with industry to deliver biological imaging technology using new quantum-inspired effects. The research has shown promising capabilities while simultaneously reducing device costs and rapidly improving accessibility for patients.

Pulse oximeters are among the most common optical devices for monitoring blood oxygenation and they played a critical role during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pulse oximeters work by measuring the transmission of light through the patient’s fingertips and requires calibration based on skin tone and finger anatomy.  However, this calibration is not suitable for everyone and often provides less accurate results in patients with darker skin tones or smaller than average fingertips.

QuantIC researchers, in partnership with semiconductor manufacturer Elmos, are working to develop an oximeter that provides accurate results no matter the skin tone or anatomy size. The proposed device works on the travel time of light as well as its transmission, and measurements are made possible due to the extremely sensitive quantum detectors. The introduction an additional travel time measurement removes any patient calibration.

Imaging through the human body with visible light is another goal for QuantIC’s leading research teams, who are aiming to quantum light-in-flight techniques, making imaging through tissue possible. This will replace expensive and limited MRI and X-Ray machines with hand-held portable devices. The pioneering team are due to present their exciting first results later in the year.

A laptop and stethoscope
Future proofing cyber security for the healthcare sector with quantum communications

Cyber security is crucial to the healthcare sector. Find out how quantum communications could help to secure patient data. 

Advances in quantum computing pose a real threat to current encryption techniques underpinning the world’s cyber security infrastructure, and in fact, data could be intercepted and downloaded now, ready to be decrypted later. Any breaches in cyber security resulting in the leaking of any confidential patient data could have major legal and financial implications, risking the operations of essential healthcare services. It is therefore imperative that healthcare providers and suppliers act now to protect their data and communications.

To future proof-cyber security, researchers at the Quantum Communications Hub are developing quantum networking technologies to demonstrate that quantum secure communications can operate in the real world alongside conventional communications infrastructure. The UK’s first quantum network, the UKQN, was launched in 2018 by the Hub and provides a secure link spanning 410km, connecting Bristol to Cambridge. The UKQN was subsequently expanded with the launch of the UKQNtel in 2019. This network extends the UKQN by 125km to Ipswich, and uses previously installed standard commercial grade optical fibre, providing a testbed for new quantum secure communications technologies and systems and paving the way for future commercialisation of quantum communications technologies.

Once quantum networks are implemented, healthcare providers and suppliers will be able to trust that sensitive data can be transferred up and down the country completely securely, without the worry of interception and decryption. There is also the possibility for healthcare providers to install their own small-scale local quantum networks, facilitating the secure transfer of data internally across medical campuses.

Quantum computing as a healthcare tool

The Quantum Computing and Simulation Hub is working to develop quantum computers that could have major impact upon the healthcare sector. 

Just over 50 years since the release of the first commercial microprocessor, computing is about to take another important step. In the UK’s Quantum Computing and Simulation Hub, a collaboration between 17 universities, researchers are working to develop quantum computers that will revolutionise every aspect of our lives.

While the technologies being worked on now are very much in their infancy it is already possible to imagine some of the advances fully-fledged quantum computers may bring to healthcare in the future.

One exciting area in which quantum computing may make advances is the development of new drugs. While existing digital computers make valiant attempts to mimic the complex processes we find in nature, the advanced simulations required to understand how compounds interact at a molecular level are beyond their reach.  Quantum computing and simulation potentially offer the tools to make massive breakthroughs in this field.

The potential of quantum computing also extends beyond discovering new drugs. The vast processing power these new machines are expected to offer may eventually even give us the chance to manage our health at a personal level, providing treatments tailored to an individual based on genetic and environmental factors, alongside more traditional measurements. While these possibilities are some way off, the work taking place in the UK now to develop quantum computers is the first step towards this exciting future.

A man wearing a quantum brain scanner
Transforming diagnosis and detection in healthcare with quantum sensing

Engineers and physicists at the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing are developing a new generation of magnetic systems to improve our understanding of everything from basic cognition to dementia and ADHD.

Through using Optically Pumped Magnetometers (OPMs), Hub researchers have created the first wearable MEG system which permits free movement during scanning.  This can be placed directly on the scalp, closer to the brain, enhancing the accuracy of signal detection five-fold. A wearable system imposes less restriction on movement by the subject and avoids the high installation and running costs of a conventional MEG system. This technology will enable detailed research into brain conditions such as Dementia, Cerebrovascular Disease and Parkinson’s.

Three years after Hub researchers at the University of Nottingham published a ground-breaking paper in Nature on non-invasive imaging techniques to investigate brain function, Dr Elena Boto and the academic team in Nottingham, along with David Woolger at Magnetic Shields Ltd, set up Cerca Magnetics Ltd, a spin-out company capitalising on this ground-breaking research which aims to bring wearable quantum-enabled brain scanners to both a research and clinical commercial market. Since launching, Cerca successfully installed its OPM-MEG system at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto for ground-breaking research into autism, as well as Young Epilepsy to revolutionise the diagnostic experience for children with Epilepsy.

Animated brain

New spin-out partnership signals quantum leap for brain imaging

A new type of wearable brain scanner is a step closer to being used in hospitals with the launch of a new spin-out company formed by UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing researchers at the University of Nottingham and Magnetic Shields Ltd (MSL).

Cerca Magnetics Limited aims to bring the world’s most advanced brain scanner to market. The Cerca Scanner has been specially designed to allow people to move freely whilst being scanned, and will offer an unprecedented window on brain function and give new hope to people suffering with severe neurological illnesses, such as epilepsy.

Hub researchers at the University of Nottingham have been developing the technology for the wearable brain scanner for the past five years in collaboration with neuroscientists at University College London. Their research, funded by the UK Quantum Technologies Programme, Innovate UK, and the Wellcome Trust, has demonstrated the ability to create images of the brain with millimetre accuracy, even when the person being scanned is moving. This opens up new possibilities for imaging babies and children.

This new wearable scanner is based on a technique called magnetoencephalography (MEG), in which the tiny magnetic fields generated by electrical current flow in brain cells are measured. Mathematical reconstruction of those fields generates images showing moment-to-moment changes in brain activity. These unique pictures can tell us how our brains respond when we perform a mental task, and more importantly, how things begin to go wrong in neurological or mental health problems.

Whilst other MEG scanners exist, the Cerca System is unique since it is the only “wearable” MEG system allowing patients to move freely during the scan. It also uniquely adapts to different head sizes, making it possible to scan adults, or babies, using the same system. It offers considerably higher sensitivity and spatial specificity compared to the best existing systems and all of this can be achieved at lower cost.

Dr Elena Boto, University of Nottingham scientist and chief technology officer for Cerca, said: “5 years ago, we started with a few equations on the back of an envelope, and a few lines of computer code to simulate a system. To have seen this mature into a commercialisable imaging system, which can outperform anything available currently, has been remarkable. There are many advantages to our system but for me the biggest is the ability to scan babies and children. Neurological disorders, like epilepsy, often strike in young children and this new system will provide new information to medical professionals which they can use in treatment planning.”

This article was originally posted on the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing website

Animated human brain

Researchers awarded by Institute of Physics on ground-breaking technology offering deeper insight into the human body

We are delighted to announce that the Institute of Physics (IoP) have awarded Silver Subject Medals to two UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing researchers at the University of Nottingham.

Professor Penny Gowland, Co-Investigator for the Magnetometry for Healthcare work stream at the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, has been awarded the 2020 Peter Mansfield Medal and Prize for her major contributions in developing novel techniques for quantitative Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to enable innovative, non-invasive investigations into human anatomy and physiology.

Among many examples of her outstanding research breakthroughs, Professor Gowland developed a series of novel MRI measurements for studying the function of the gastro-intestinal (GI) tract.

These have improved our understanding of the physiological response to feeding, including how the formation of food can affect the sense of satiety. These methods have provided powerful objective ways of assessing functional GI disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and other diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

Mapping brain activity with portable technology is a key part of the Quantum Technology Hub’s research, and Professor Richard Bowtell, also a Co-Investigator at the Hub, has been awarded the 2020 James Joule Medal and Prize for his work in developing technology for biomedical imaging.

In addition to a broad body of work that has pushed the capability of MRI to higher field and diagnostic power, Professor Bowtell and colleagues have developed a unique wearable system that allows brain mapping to be carried out during experiments in which the subject is free to move, opening up a range of new brain-mapping experiments and studies of previously inaccessible subject groups. The system depends on a technology called magnetoencephalography (MEG), which maps magnetic fields outside the scalp generated by brain activity.

Professor Gowland said: “I am very honoured to have been awarded the Sir Peter Mansfield Medal, particularly since I had the pleasure of working for Peter Mansfield early in my career. This award recognises the generous support I have received from many colleagues from different disciplines over the years. It is very exciting to now be using quantum technology sensors to provide a new method of studying the function of the human body.”

Professor Bowtell said: “It is a great honour to receive the James Joule medal. The award is definitely testament to the support of a fantastic set of colleagues, who I have had the pleasure of working with during my career. The backing of the UK National Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing has been crucial for our recent success in developing a wearable MEG system.”

This article was originally posted on the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing website

Dr Amrute Gadge, University of Sussex
Researcher creates fifth state of matter in living room

A researcher from the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing has created the fifth state of matter working from home using quantum technology

Dr Amruta Gadge, Research Fellow in Quantum Physics and Technologies at the University of Sussex, successfully created a Bose-Einstein Condensate (BEC) at Sussex’s facilities despite working remotely from her living room two miles away.

It is believed to be the first time that BEC has been created remotely in a lab that did not have one before.

The research team believe the achievement could provide a blueprint for operating quantum technology in inaccessible environments such as space.

A BEC consists of a cloud of hundreds of thousands of rubidium atoms cooled down to nanokelvin temperatures, which is more than a billion times colder than freezing.  At this point the atoms take on a different property and behave all together as a single quantum object. This quantum object has special properties which can sense very low magnetic fields.

Dr Gadge was able to make complex calculations, optimise, and run the sequence from her home by accessing the lab computers remotely. Just prior to lockdown, researchers set-up a 2D magnetic optical trap and have returned only a couple of times to carry out essential maintenance.

She said: “The research team has been observing lockdown and working from home and so we have not been able to access our labs for weeks.  But we were determined to keep our research going so we have been exploring new ways of running our experiments remotely. It has been a massive team effort.”

Peter Krüger, Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Sussex, said: “We believe this may be the first time that someone has established a BEC remotely in a lab that didn’t have one before. We are all extremely excited that we can continue to conduct our experiments remotely during lockdown, and any possible future lockdowns.

"But there are also wider implications beyond our team. Enhancing the capabilities of remote lab control is relevant for research applications aimed at operating quantum technology in inaccessible environments such as space, underground, in a submarine, or in extreme climates.” 

The Quantum Systems and Devices Group have been working on having a second lab with a BEC running consistently over the past nine months as part of a wider project developing a new type of magnetic microscopy and other quantum sensors. 

The research team uses atomic gases as magnetic sensors close to various objects including novel advanced materials, ion channels in cells, and the human brain. Trapped cold quantum gases are controlled to create extremely accurate and precise sensors that are ideal for detecting and studying new materials, geometries and devices.The research team are developing their sensors to be applied in many areas including electrical vehicle batteries, touch screens, solar cells and medical advancements such as brain imaging.

EEG of brain
Quantum sensors to enable better planning for epilepsy surgery patients

A new project to harness quantum technology to enable better planning for patients undergoing epilepsy surgery

The Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing, which is led by the University of Birmingham, has awarded £300,000 to the project via its Partnership Resource Fund (PRF). Researchers at the University of Nottingham and University College London will carry out the research, which aims to improve the accuracy of pre-surgical planning.

The team will combine quantum-enabled wearable technology with new biophysical modelling into a helmet-style device that will enable brain activity to be measured even when a subject moves. By measuring electric discharges during seizures, it is possible to pinpoint the location of the seizure with much greater accuracy. This information can be used to design highly targeted and completely non-invasive surgical planning.

Epilepsy is a serious and debilitating disorder affecting around 600,000 people in the UK. If patients do not respond to medication – in around 30% of cases – neurosurgery is the most effective solution to remove the seizure focus. Pre-surgical planning is incredibly important to ensure that whilst the seizure focus is removed, cortical function remains intact.

Presently, this planning stage is difficult, and can depend on an additional operation to implant electrodes in the brain. Although functional neuroimaging offers a non-invasive method of pre-surgical planning, conventional systems rely on patients keeping still within large and cumbersome machines. This makes it difficult to measure brain activity, particularly whilst a patient is having a seizure.

This project will be undertaken at the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging (WCHN) and will take advantage of the existing strong and productive links between UCL and Nottingham and the neurology team at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery.

Diamond / Jon Newland
Diamonds for your heart

Could quantum sensors made from diamond diagnose heart disease?

Heart disease is the most common cause of death worldwide. When someone complains of chest pains it may be that there is nothing to worry about, but doctors need to check, which can take up to 12 hours. A quicker test would be reassuring for the patient and save NHS resources. In future this may be done by measuring magnetic fields with our diamond sensors: Every time your heart beats, it emits a tiny magnetic field that is a million times weaker than the Earth’s magnetic field.

How can a diamond detect magnetic fields? We have built our sensors around diamonds grown in the UK by Element Six. They are pink because of defects we’ve put in called nitrogen vacancy defects: a nitrogen atom next to a missing carbon atom. We shine in a green laser and detect the pink light the defects give off. The amount of pink light tells us the quantum state of the defects, and this depends on the magnetic field when we shine in microwaves. Our sensors work at room temperature with no need for vacuum, so would be convenient for doctors. We’re working with cardiologists and companies towards bringing our research into hospitals.

Read more:

Image: diamond containing nitrogen vacancies fluorescing due to illumination with green light, by Jon Newland

Low light single photon imaging
Low light single photon imaging

Could you take a high-resolution image in the dark?

A photon is the fundamental particle of light and it takes many million of these photons to form an image on a sensor in a conventional camera. You would also expect that the more photons available, the better the image. But what if you wanted to take a good quality image in very low light conditions, for example, in the study of cells for medical research?

At QuantIC, we have developed camera sensors that can form images from fewer than one photon per camera pixel. Reducing the required light level means that images can be obtained without damaging the object and such capabilities have applications in the imaging of delicate specimens which are sensitive and easily damaged by light. We are now working with an industry partner in microscopy to see how this can improve the imaging of light sensitive biological samples.

Find out more:

Image: Demonstration of low light single photon imaging at the National Quantum Technologies Showcase, by Dan Tsantilis / EPSRC