Mini-pump technology could help detect lung cancer

A new miniature pump from The Technology Partnership (TTP) is being used in a cancer detection system that its developers say could save over 10,000 lives by 2020.

Disc Pump, which is about the size of two £2 coins stacked together, is part of the LuCID (Lung Cancer Indicator Detection) programme developed by Cambridge manufacturer Owlstone. The programme hopes to deliver a cheaper, smaller and non-invasive method of identifying pulmonary disease.

Th pump is about the size of two £2 coins stacked together.
Th pump is about the size of two £2 coins stacked together.

Working at ultrasonic frequencies, Disc Pump cycles 21,000 times per second. Each of these cycles passes a minute volume of air (100 nanolitres) over sensors, allowing the detection of low concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds can be early-stage indicators of diseases including lung cancer.

“TTP’s novel pump enables us to get the best out of our gas analyser and create a more responsive, more sensitive lung cancer detector,” said Alastair Taylor, chief product manager at Owlstone.

The pump can be configured to deliver pressures of 400mbar and flow rates exceeding 1L/min with fully adjustable control. According to TTP, the rate at which each pin-head-sized sample of air is captured makes it effective at identifying very low concentrations, with the even flow and high number of cycles improving the quality of measurements.

LuCID is due to enter Phase 2 clinical trials this month. As well as being used in this detection system, Disc Pump also has a role in Owlstone’s companion system to capture a patient’s breath. It can be turned on and off in a millisecond, meaning a sample can be taken at a precise point of exhalation. TTP also believes there are applications that go beyond pulmonary medicine.

“We are incredibly excited about working with Owlstone, and this is just one of the medical applications where Disc Pump’s novel characteristics can have a dramatic impact,” said Tom Harrison, project manager at TTP.

“In addition to this area of healthcare, we are actively pursuing many other opportunities that range from sleep apnea to vascular therapy.”