Space tech tackles health issues back on Earth

An initiative to transfer space technology into healthcare solutions has produced a cloud-based AI system for detecting bowel cancer and an app to help exercisers avoid pollution.

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Data from the ESA’s Sentinel-5P will help exercisers avoid heavy pollution (Credit: ESA)

The projects are backed by £5m of funding from the UK Space Agency to mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of the NHS. One million pounds has been awarded to EARTH SCAN (Early diAgnosis Real-Time Healthcare System for CANcer), a system developed by University College London (UCL) researchers that uses AI to support doctors in identifying bowel cancer. The technology relies on secure, high-speed satellite communications combined with bespoke data compression software normally reserved for space missions. As it is a cloud-based AI, it can be deployed reliably anywhere across the planet.

“We are moving into a new era of healthcare where Artificial Intelligence (AI) will support doctors to identify and diagnose cancer faster and more effectively,” said Peter Mountney of Odin Vision, the UCL spinout bringing the system to market.

“The EARTH SCAN project is an exciting opportunity to use satellite technology to bring this AI support to doctors in real time. Real-time support means doctors can make immediate decisions regarding treatment and patients can receive the results of their scan straight away instead of waiting weeks.”

P-STEP (Personalised Space Technology Exercise Platform ) from the University of Leicester also makes use of satellite capabilities, helping exercisers avoid areas of high pollution. Supported by £2m of funding, it combines Earth observation satellite data with AI to map pollution hotspots and create personalised exercise routes for users. It also takes into account any conditions, such as asthma, that could be exacerbated by pollution and generates warnings at the local level that are accurate to within 10 metres.

“Whilst we know physical activity is good for many patients with long term conditions including heart and lung diseases, clinicians are often anxious about recommending exercise and often unable to prescribe accurate and effective exercise for their patients,” said Professor Andre Ng from the University of Leicester.

“We will develop a patient-centred mobile app that takes in satellite data with unique resolution including that of air quality that delivers precise guideline-based exercise advice tailored to their condition and ability. This greatly enhances the confidence of both healthcare professionals to prescribe and patients to put into practice, effective physical activity which improves well-being and reduces healthcare utilisation.”

The projects are being funded by the UK Space Agency in partnership with NHS England and the European Space Agency (ESA). In June 2018 innovators were asked to bid for a share of £5m to turn technology originally designed for space into medical applications that improve NHS treatment and care.

On 8 April 2019, £1m was also awarded to Adaptix to develop a portable 3D X-ray scanner, which could also revolutionise cancer diagnosis. Support for a fourth project will also be announced in the near future, according to the UK Space Agency.

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