20 new ideas from UK universities that will change the world

A “magic carpet” that protects the elderly from falls and clothing that detects cancer risk among ground-breaking higher education research projects

June 9, 2014

The theme of Universities Week 2014, which started today and runs until 15 June 2014, is the relevance of university research and its everyday impact on our lives.

To this end, a survey commissioned for the annual event, which is run by Universities UK with Research Councils UK, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement, asked the general public about the issues that they want university research to address.

Thirty per cent said they wanted improved wellbeing in old age; just under half (47 per cent) wanted better treatments for the UK’s most deadly diseases; a quarter wanted technology that would improve people’s quality of life; and 38 per cent said they cared about living in cities that are safe, enjoyable places.

With this in mind, 20 UK university research projects that hope to tackle these issues have been highlighted as part of the celebrations. See below for a summary of these projects, the institutions involved, and the name of the lead researcher(s).

1. Comics explain chronic pain

Denis Martin, Teesside University

Comic book superheroes are being used in an innovative way to help children understand more about older relatives suffering from chronic pain.

Working with academics from various institutions and London firm Medikidz, the comic uses superheroes to put medical information into plain words which children can understand. It can be difficult for a child to comprehend an adult’s physical pain - whether through injury or terminal illness - as there may be no visible symptoms.

“The idea for the comic came about as we were talking to older people to find out their ideas on how to improve the lives of people living with chronic pain,” Professor Martin said. “We learned that there was a need to help grandchildren to better understand the experiences of a grandparent living with chronic pain”.

2. The over 85’s health MOT

Dawn Skelton, Glasgow Caledonian University in partnership with the British Heart Foundation National Centre for Physical Activity and Health

This research is developing new ways to help older people stay fitter and healthier for longer via the “Functional Fitness MOT” - a fitness test and exercise programme designed to measure and improve balance, strength and stamina among older people, and reduce the chance of falls.

3. Battery brain test for Alzheimer’s

Richard Jagger, University of Bolton

The research aims to detect Alzheimer’s disease before any symptoms become apparent, and uses electroencephalogram (EEG) testing as an early diagnosis tool for the degenerative brain illness. The test will see if there is a difference in brain activity between those with the early stages of Alzheimer’s and those ageing normally.

4. Cancer detection clothing

Joan Farrer, Brighton University

Cancer, textile and human computer interaction specialists are creating smart textiles which provide an “early warning system” for skin cancer risk. Two potential products are in development and will be trialled soon. They involve a smart textile which changes colour in line with skin cancer risk and a mobile application which alerts users to sun dangers when they are out and about.

5. Real time cancer care

Galina Velikova, University of Leeds

The research, called eRAPID, will evaluate a new system for patients to report the symptoms and side effects of cancer treatment via the internet. A patient’s reports about how they are feeling are immediately displayed in electronic hospital records, so clinicians can use them to improve and streamline care.

The aim is to improve the safe delivery of treatment, enhance patient experience and standardise the documentation of symptoms and side effects. The research will take place in Leeds, Bristol and Manchester with patients receiving chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery.

“Friendly robots” changing young lives, Plymouth University

6. Rotten eggs for heart attacks

Matt Whiteman and Mark Wood, University of Exeter (joint project with Harvard University)

A new compound which contains a noxious substance which smells of rotten eggs is now being associated with health benefits in a range of health issues, from diabetes to stroke and heart attack.

Studies show that generating tiny amounts of hydrogen sulphide helps protect mitochondria - the “powerhouse” of cells, which make energy in blood vessel cells. In models of cardiovascular disease, research shows that more than 80 per cent of these cells survive under otherwise destructive conditions, if the compound is administered. Early indications also show that it could dramatically improve chances of survival after a heart attack by slowing the heartbeat, improving its efficiency.

7. Android app to control cancer

Reem Kayyali, Shereen Elnabhani and Nada Philip, Kingston University

A mobile phone app is being developed to help cancer patients manage the side effects caused by their drugs at home. Researchers sought the opinions of 14 cancer patients and survivors recruited through the Macmillan Cancer Voices network while devising the app’s design. Many said they had previously felt overwhelmed by healthcare information.

8. Light activated sun cream

Charareh Pourzand and Ian Eggleston, University of Bath

While many sun creams provide good protection against the sun’s UVB rays, they provide less protection against more prevalent and cancer causing UVA rays. Researchers have created an innovative ingredient which when applied in a sun cream can act as a UVA filter and provide fuller protection against skin damage. The new compounds are light activated when exposed to relevant doses of UVA, and unique in how they release anti-oxidants to neutralise free radicals whilst at the same time capturing excess iron in the skin.

“We are very excited to play a part in this pioneering research that could lead to a new generation of sunscreens,” said Hermione Lawson, from the British Skin Foundation.

9. Understanding teenagers, technology and texting

Andy Phippen, Plymouth University

In an era where the internet is utilised for all manner of personal, professional and social interactions, staying safe online is one of the key challenges. Professor Phippen’s research into online behaviour, predominantly among younger generations, has highlighted that while most people use the web positively, there are those who will use it to attack others, often with tragic consequences. He has been able to highlight developing attitudes to the internet and the work needed by governments and relevant bodies to ensure the internet remains a positive influence on our lives.

10. “Friendly robots” changing young lives

Tony Belpaeme and Angelo Cangelosi, Plymouth University

Robots and robotics software can transform the lives of people they come into contact with, and our understanding of cognitive and neural systems. Researchers are examining the possibilities of developing a robot capable of acting as a companion to a child in hospital for the duration of their stay.

Plymouth’s research into the potential of friendly robots’ was identified as one of the top life-changing ideas under research at UK universities, in a 2011 list produced by Research Councils UK and Universities UK.

Apps for eyes, Royal Holloway, University of London

11. Apps for eyes

Robin Walker, Royal Holloway, University of London

Macular disease is the most common cause of sight loss in the UK. Researchers have developed an iPad app to help people make use of their peripheral vision using a simple technique called eccentric viewing. The app is designed to enhance the eccentric viewing technique for reading eBooks.

12. “Peek test” app eye test

Andrew Bastawrous, Stewart Jordan, Mario Giardini, Iain Livingstone, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

The Peek team are developing and testing an adapted smartphone using a bespoke app and clip-on hardware that can carry out comprehensive eye examinations. The ability of a non-specialist to remotely detect eye problems using Peek means treatment can be expedited and unnecessary hospital clinic appointments can be prevented, presenting a way of reducing expenditure by streamlining care within the NHS.

13. Seeing with sound

Michael Proulx, University of Bath

Psychologists at the University of Bath are using a computer device to help blind people “see” through sound. The team is studying how the so-called vOICe, a device which creates a scale of tonal notes of an object’s height and width, could be used by blind people to provide navigational reference points. Dr Proulx is collaborating with computer scientists at Queen Mary University of London and Goldsmiths, University of London.

14. Stress tips from the police

Jonathan Smith, Anglia Ruskin University

Policing is regularly identified as one of the most stressful of occupations. This research into personal resilience and stress has been working to identify how police officers develop resilience, what areas of resilience appear to be significant and what people outside the police can learn from the findings.

15. The tales of our texts

Victoria Mapplebeck, Royal Holloway, University of London

Mobile phone users will be able to bring to life their archived text messages using the Text Me project, which allows people to explore the multitude of stories hidden in their phones and turn them into short animated films.

Contributors will send in a text message that marked the start or end of a personal drama that changed their life, which researchers will use to develop the web-based interactive app. The final Text Me website, which will be available later this year, will feature editing software which contributors can use to create their own film out of a text message or thread.

Magic carpet, University of Manchester

16. The possibility of an ethical public policy?

Craig Duckworth, Anglia Ruskin University

Most public policy issues (climate change, euthanasia, the legalisation of cannabis) have a complex ethical dimension. Policy issues are, of course, considered in the media and political forums. There are, however, limited opportunities for public discussion of the ethics of policy choices.

This research explores the following question: is it possible to create a national infrastructure through which the ethical aspects of public policies can be discussed? The research is at an early stage and has involved, so far, discussions in a cellar bar in Hoxton and in a small theatre space in Cambridge. Professional actors present a short dramatic account of the moral issues, and this is followed by a group discussion.

17. Learning from lungs

Jonathan Grigg, Queen Mary University of London (with Abigail Whitehouse and Rossa Brugha, children’s doctors)

It is well recognised that dirty air affects how children’s lungs grow, as well as worsening asthma and allergies. What we do not know is how these changes occur.
This study involves going into schools to teach children about air pollution - what it is, where it comes from, and how it affects everybody. In turn, the children help with the research, providing samples of cells from their lungs, plus some urine and cheek swabs for DNA, to see how air pollution is affecting their bodies.

18. Training for success

Emanuele Giovannetti, Anglia Ruskin University; Claudio Piga, University of Keele

This study looks into firms’ innovation activities such as staff training to assess whether, and how, investments in innovation activities not only affect the outcomes of the investing firm (the internal effects), but also generate “knowledge spill overs” affecting the innovation performance of other firms in the economic system (the external effects).

19. Sustainable solar / solar clothing

Alison Walker, University of Bath

Traditional solar panels are efficient, but they are often made from toxic or rare materials and their manufacture can harm the environment. The study is developing new materials for solar cells to make them cheaper, more efficient and more environmentally sustainable.

These new solar cells will produce energy even on cloudy days, making them suitable for the UK climate. The research also looks at novel types of solar cells, including semi-transparent ones that could be used on windows and lightweight and flexible cells that could be used on clothing to charge your mobile phone.

20. Magic carpet

Krikor Ozanyan, University of Manchester

The “magic carpet” can immediately detect when someone has fallen over and can help to predict mobility problems. Falling is the most serious and frequent accident in the home and accounts for 50 per cent of hospital admissions in the over 65s.

A carpet that can show a steady deterioration or change in walking habits could possibly predict and prevent dramatic episodes such as a fall.

The research demonstrated that plastic optical fibres, laid on the underlay of a carpet, bend when anyone treads on it and map, in real-time, their walking patterns. Tiny electronics at the edges act as sensors and relay signals to a computer, which can then be analysed to show the image of the footprint and identify gradual changes in walking behaviour or a sudden incident such as a fall or trip.

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