The healthcare technologies theme supports research across Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)’s remit. The aim is to accelerate translation to healthcare applications.
The healthcare technologies theme supports research across EPSRC’s remit. The aim is to accelerate translation to healthcare applications. In order to achieve this, we aim to address four grand challenges:
- developing new therapies: focusing on the need to produce safer, more targeted treatments fit for the demands of the decades up to 2050 and beyond
- expanding the frontiers of physical intervention: the potential to enhance established techniques and develop pioneering new approaches to such intervention that deliver high precision, minimal invasiveness and maximum impact
- transforming health and care beyond the hospital: meeting the need for novel technologies that enable timely interventions beyond hospital settings and help people manage their own physical and mental health
- optimising disease prediction, diagnosis and intervention: addressing both physical and mental health with techniques that optimise patient-specific illness prediction, accurate diagnosis and effective intervention.
The vision of the healthcare technologies theme is to accelerate the translation of EPSRC research to healthcare applications by:
- building critical mass around UK research strengths in computational, engineering, mathematical and physical sciences that underpin healthcare
- maximising business, charity and clinical engagement in research, thereby increasing translation to products and practices.
Strong features of the theme are:
- focusing on the highest priority healthcare challenges and the research capabilities that will address them
- partnerships with other funders to encourage translational research and open up pathways to impact
- providing support for environments that promote multidisciplinary research and training
- stimulating creative and transformational approaches to address unmet clinical needs and improve patient outcomes.
Developing new therapies
Flexible, adaptable processes for manufacturing high-quality therapies
In a world challenged and changed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the unrelenting drive to tackle existing and emerging diseases by harnessing engineering and physical sciences to develop new therapies must continue apace. This challenge focuses on the need to produce safer, more targeted treatments fit for the demands of the decades up to 2050 and beyond.
By enabling earlier intervention, and more accurate, less invasive, more affordable action, these will not just prevent, slow or reverse deterioration in physical and mental health but also enhance quality of life by eliminating or alleviating symptoms. There are several ways that research could do this.
Advanced technologies ready for clinical trials
Research could include but will not be limited to projects delivering multiscale computer modelling, adaptive design and data analytics, for example. This can not only cut time-to-market for new therapies but can also pinpoint opportunities for repurposing drugs to target additional diseases, maximising the benefits of investing in drug development.
Advanced technologies to enhance drug delivery
Research could include but will not be limited to projects delivering these technologies to boost the effectiveness with which novel drugs and other pharmaceutical substances:
- target specific places in the body
- achieve controlled release of their active ingredients
- deliver more than one active ingredient at a time.
Flexible, adaptable processes for manufacturing high-quality therapies
Research could include processes that will be capable of cost-effective scale up to enable mass production of medicines – for example, to tackle epidemics. It could also include processes that will be capable of scale down to produce personalised medicines, such as regenerative therapies using patients’ own cells.
Innovative technologies for regenerative medicine
Research could include innovative technologies that will:
- enable development of new materials to promote tissue growth
- creation of human organs in the lab – avoiding the need to rely on donors when damaged organs need replacement or repair
- optimisation of the capabilities of donated organs and tissues and maximisation of the benefits they deliver.
In-silico, in-vitro and biomarker technologies for use in drug discovery
Research could include use of these technologies to cut drug development costs and minimise the need for animal testing. These will enable rapid prediction and measurement of:
- drugs’ therapeutic impact
- their interactions with target molecules in the body
Research and innovation can make a key contribution to all the pivotal goals this challenge addresses, from better prevention and earlier diagnosis to improved treatment, better outcomes and faster recovery.
Expanding the frontiers of physical intervention
From provision of prostheses to surgery and radiotherapy, effective physical intervention is fundamental to tackling impairment by restoring function, repairing damage and eliminating disease. This challenge focuses on the potential not just to enhance established techniques but also to develop pioneering new approaches to such intervention that deliver high precision, minimal invasiveness and maximum impact.
This is a sphere where the scope for technological breakthroughs to improve lives is truly huge. Advances could, for instance:
- address the effects of ageing, injury and illnesses that limit function
- tackle the impact of global pandemics and crises such as COVID-19
- tackle the impact of diseases such as cancer that exacerbate and accelerate function loss.
Similarly, they could embrace physical and digital devices, or use whole body or more targeted approaches.
There are several ways that research could do this. By catalysing advances like these, this challenge aims to reinforce the role of physical interventions in maintaining and enhancing function, and their contribution to optimising healthcare.
Advances in physics modelling and image-guided treatment planning
Research could improve lives by increasing the precision and targeting of surgical procedures and radiotherapy. These advances will ensure fewer side effects, faster recovery times and better overall outcomes.
Affordable new methods for precision targeting of non-ionising radiation
Nanoscale devices and other innovations will revolutionise treatment of cancer, for example, by improving the efficacy of radiotherapy and reducing side effects.
Providing long-term sensing and control capabilities will help to re-establish function, reduce pain and assist recovery.
Lightweight exoskeletons and balance-training devices
Supporting movement and helping to prevent falls will deliver life-changing benefits for older people and those undergoing rehabilitation after illness or injury.
Novel, cost-effective technologies for implants, prostheses and assistive device
Designed to maintain or improve function, novel technologies will adapt to users’ changing needs and capabilities, and so encourage more people to use (and keep using) aids that help them overcome impairment.
Novel devices that boost interventions’ success rates and longevity
Such devices will generate a wide variety of valuable benefits, such as reducing the need for follow-up or revision surgery.
Personalisation of physical intervention technologies
Focusing on digital health or pain management in the home, for example, technologies customisable to individual needs will not only strengthen palliative and other types of patient care but also protect and improve the health of the population at large.
Technologies for robotic surgery
Reduced recovery times, lower infection rates and lower costs are just three of the benefits that will result from harnessing highly accurate, minimally invasive autonomous and assisted robotics in surgical interventions.
Transforming health and care beyond the hospital
As the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined so starkly, the battle to tackle disease, support wellbeing and protect the vulnerable is also fought in people’s own homes.
This challenge focuses on the need for novel technologies that enable timely interventions beyond hospital settings and help people manage their own physical and mental health. Working cross-sector where appropriate, engineering and physical sciences research can drive this revolution in fields including:
- real-time sensing
- wearable devices and smart tools aiding remote prevention, diagnosis and treatment
- data interpretation and presentation.
The aim is to equip patients, informal carers and healthcare professionals to communicate, collaborate and participate in a new framework that generates benefits at both individual and whole-population level.
There are several ways that research could do this. Key benefits of research pursued in response to this challenge will include better self-management by patients, faster recovery from illness and injury, and a reduced need to engage directly with ‘traditional’ health and care systems.
Decision-support dashboards and tools for healthcare professionals
These will support safe, effective remote monitoring and management of people with long-term conditions or who have been discharged early from hospital.
Devices and technologies fostering better mental health
Huge potential exists for innovations that help and support people with mental health conditions or who have limited opportunities for social interaction.
Improvements in health behaviour
Harnessing the power of social networking, for example, can be an effective tool for promoting and encouraging lifestyle adjustments that boost health and wellbeing.
Individually adaptive, minimally intrusive monitoring technologies
These will enhance health, care and wellbeing by facilitating collection of patient data. They will also make it easier for patients to interact with healthcare professionals and provide updates on their medical conditions.
These will be fully informed about an individual’s healthcare history. They will provide personalised feedback, tailored information and timely advice and empower people to manage their health more effectively and independently.
New methods of recognising abnormal data pattern
Working at a person-specific level, these will:
- analyse physiological and behavioural data collected over time
- identify causes for concern
- provide early warnings for the patient themselves, their informal carers and healthcare professionals.
Technologies making human-computer interaction easier
These will allow people with limited IT skills to harness computers as information and communication tools that help them manage their own health and care.
Optimising disease prediction, diagnosis and intervention
Proactive disease prevention, timely treatment and prompt detection of recurrence are among the key foundations of any healthcare system maximising the value of the investment that underpins it.
Addressing both physical and mental health, this challenge focuses on the need for novel techniques that optimise patient-specific illness prediction, accurate diagnosis and effective intervention. With the onset of COVID-19 providing yet another incentive to remorselessly raise the bar in these vital areas, the aim is to strengthen the ability to take exactly the right steps to combat disease at precisely the right time.
Scientific, mathematical and other techniques, from biomarker identification, research into medical imaging and risk stratification to predictive modelling and real-time, evidence-based decision-making, will all play a role.
There are several ways that research could do this. New tools, techniques and technologies developed through research and innovation carried out in response to this challenge will be harnessed to benefit healthcare in fields as diverse as mental, maternal and paediatric health.
Complex models and decision-support systems that accommodate uncertainty
Rooted in an understanding of levels of confidence and sensitivity, these will enable increasingly sophisticated, increasingly agile decision-making regarding the treatment of individual patients.
Improved capabilities in real-time analytics
These will both improve the planning of treatment and enhance the patient experience, for example by making medical image acquisition smarter.
New devices for timely, accurate diagnosis of disease
By making it easier to plan effective interventions, these will increase the probability of successful outcomes.
New methods of analysing large datasets and cross-population data
These will cut costs and inform treatment options and improve outcomes.
Novel non-invasive sensing platforms
By capturing real-time data on individuals’ health and lifestyle, these will:
- enable automated interventions – such as controlled drug release
- improve control of medical conditions
- allow patients to live more normally and independently.
Patient-specific and population-based predictive models
These will assist timely, accurate diagnosis and improved prediction of outcome by integrating expert medical knowledge with specific information about individuals – sourced, for instance, from medical records, physiological and behaviour monitoring, and self-reporting.
Techniques for predictive prevention of disease
Linked to new opportunities for tailored health screening, the identifying of at-risk individuals and early diagnosis, the harnessing of digital technologies and data analytics to predict susceptibility to illness can help people stay healthy and avoid medical complications.
Cross-cutting research capabilities
There are six areas of research that are essential for delivering the grand challenges.
Research focused on the development, characterisation and processing of advanced materials with novel chemical, physical or mechanical properties, for health-related applications.
This may include but is not limited to:
- development of biomaterials with innovative properties
- design of bio-responsive materials
- materials with enhanced biocompatibility
- mechanical properties of tissues and biomaterials
- applications of nano and 2D-materials.
Disruptive technologies for sensing and analysis
Research focused on innovative sensing systems or analytical technologies that could have a transformative impact on prediction, diagnosis and monitoring in healthcare.
This may include but is not limited to:
- high-resolution sensors for real-time, point-of-care diagnosis
- integration of sensors in a system
- data capture and processing in real time
- robust, long-term sensing
- methods for rapid, detailed analysis of chemical or biological systems
- ultra-low-power sensing systems.
Future manufacturing technologies
Research focused on technologies that will enable health-related manufacturing processes, products and systems to function with high precision, efficiency, reliability and repeatability.
This may include but is not limited to:
- design of novel, affordable manufacturing processes
- scale-up technologies
- sustainable manufacturing
- cost-effective patient specific manufacturing
- integrated nano-micro-macro manufacturing
- additive manufacturing
- sensors, measurement and data analytics for process understanding and control.
Medical device design and innovation
Research focused on the design, development, evaluation and production of cost-effective, reliable and effective medical devices.
This may include but is not limited to:
- robotics for surgical applications
- wearable devices, prosthetics and orthotics
- human-centred design for enhanced usability and validation
- digital technologies for device design, prototyping and evaluation
- sustainable design of medical devices
- minimally invasive devices for monitoring, intervention and compliance.
Novel computational and mathematical sciences
Research focused on the development of innovative computational and mathematical methods for prediction, analysis and modelling in healthcare.
This may include but is not limited to:
- new methodologies for making sense of complex healthcare data
- integration, analysis and interpretation of data for decision-making
- data visualisation tools
- in silico modelling and simulation
- mathematical and statistical modelling for healthcare applications
- optimising process, system and resource management.
Novel imaging technologies
Research focused on the development of next-generation imaging technologies for diagnostic, monitoring and therapeutic applications, with improved accuracy, affordability and incorporating new modalities.
This may include but is not limited to:
- higher performance, novel or lower cost image acquisition technologies
- automated image interpretation to aid clinical decision making
- multi-scale and multi-modal imaging systems
- techniques for image reconstruction
- high-throughput, real-time imaging at the point of care
- qualification and technical validation of imaging biomarkers.
We also partner with other organisations to accelerate translation of funded research through to products and practices. Details can be found here on our strategic partnerships.
UKRI ageing – lifelong health and wellbeing programme (LLHW)
The LLHW programme ran from 2008 until March 2015. It committed £48.6 million supporting multidisciplinary ageing research targeting areas of need to meet the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population.
Through LLHW, the research councils have facilitated new multidisciplinary research collaborations, built capacity, and worked with a wide variety of cross-sector stakeholders to raise the profile of ageing research in the UK.
The research councils envisage continued cross-council collaboration and funding opportunities for multidisciplinary ageing research and life-course health and wellbeing.
EPSRC and MRC joint statement on support for healthcare technologies
Support for healthcare technologies is of strategic importance to both EPSRC and Medical Research Council (MRC). We are committed to funding research projects and researchers of the highest international quality.
UK Regenerative Medicine Platform
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, EPSRC and MRC have established a £25 million UK Regenerative Medicine Platform to address the technical and scientific challenges associated with translating promising scientific discoveries in this area towards clinical impact.
EPSRC also partners with other organisations to accelerate translation of funded research through to products and practices.
Developing a new strategy
In November 2021, the healthcare technologies theme at EPSRC started a community consultation process to gain advice on how to refresh the current strategy.
The strategy refresh project was intended to engage the community in identifying and exploring some of the major health challenges over the next 10 years, and the role of the engineering and physical sciences in addressing these.
It built on work we undertook with our Advisory Team to refresh the description of our current grand challenges and responds to:
- the context set by the NHS Long Term Plan
- the changes in the Healthcare System brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic
- longstanding challenges such as an ageing population and health inequalities.
To engage the community, we held a series of introductory webinars in November 2021, followed by a community survey in December 2021.
Following this we held workshops from February to April 2022. The workshops were an opportunity for the healthcare community (academics, policy makers, business, and healthcare professionals) to engage in helping to co-develop the healthcare technologies strategy and to advise EPSRC on what the challenges are for healthcare over the next 10 years and how engineering and physical sciences can help.
6 themes were identified for the workshops:
- managing long term and chronic conditions
- prediction and early diagnosis
- treatment and therapeutics
- sustainable health care
- mental health
The themes were identified predominantly based on the responses to the community survey and are health outcome focused.
EPSRC also picked out themes which are currently underrepresented in our portfolio for example mental health, to ensure a spread of health needs were represented and to explore challenges where the role of engineering and physical sciences in addressing them might not be as clear.
Following the conclusion of the workshops the healthcare technologies theme analysed the outputs and have drafted a strategy.
We are now looking for feedback on the draft strategy through an open consultation. We welcome your input on whether anything is missing from the challenges or priorities we have listed in the strategy.
Whilst we are publishing the draft strategy in full, we are seeking responses on the following specific sections:
- the challenge descriptions
- the example research priorities
We welcome responses from anyone with an interest or involvement in healthcare technologies research and innovation.
To provide any feedback, complete the consultation form.
The outcomes of this survey will help to inform us about missing areas from the challenges or priorities.
Understanding the funding landscape
EPSRC supports fundamental and applied research at the earliest stages in the development of any new technology. EPSRC will support research into new technologies until appropriate, early stage, proof of concept studies have been undertaken, to demonstrate how a set of scientific principles can be used to address a healthcare challenge.
Beyond this point it is no longer appropriate for EPSRC to support the development of technologies. Significant further investment will be required to develop technologies emerging from EPSRC-funded research into products and services that are ready to be evaluated in formal safety and efficacy studies and subsequently made available to patients.
Only those technologies with the strongest case for supporting them will be successful in attracting investment at each successive stage.
The development pathway for new technologies is frequently described in terms of technology readiness levels (TRLs), which give a common reference point when considering the level of development a given technology has achieved.
The journey of any given technology through the technology development pathway is rarely a simple linear progression, there are likely to be frequent forks in the path and feedback loops where activities generate new avenues of research, invention and iteration, or where components of systems at higher readiness levels in their own right, are considered to be at a lower level when integrated into a new system.
View an illustration on technology readiness levels: from basic research to adoption and diffusion.
There are a multitude of other funders that work across the TRL scale to fund work in different scientific remits or at later stages of development.
Collectively, these organisations form a diverse, and somewhat complex, funding landscape, within which there is funding available to support a journey from fundamental, curiosity-led research all the way through to commercial products.
That journey is not easy. The journey, by its nature, is broken up into cycles of investment that support progress through the landscape and ‘up’ the TRL scale. At each successive funding stage the expectations for the technology become higher and the appetite for risk gets lower.
In order to be successful at each successive investment stage, your technology must have been sufficiently de-risked during the previous period of research and development to present a compelling case for further support.
View an illustration on the role of different funders in the Healthcare TRL landscape.
In order to move smoothly through the landscape, you need to understand the expectations of next-stage funders and consider how you will work towards meeting those expectations during your current or proposed project.
Each of these funding bodies will have different requirements, and it is highly advisable to engage with them as early as possible to gain a better understanding of what qualities successful proposals commonly feature.
You can’t know the exact path your technology will take at the outset of your project but you can suggest what some of the likely paths may be and how you will establish which of these to pursue as your project progresses. Some of the principal sources of translational funding for healthcare technologies are described below.
Sources of translational funding
EPSRC Impact Acceleration Accounts
This is an institutional funding scheme that provides small-scale flexible support for impact activities arising from previously funded EPSRC awards. It can be used to support exploratory translational activities including early proof of concept studies. This scheme is administered centrally within organisations, not all institutions will have access to this source of funding.
Contact your institution’s research office to find out more.
National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) – Invention for innovation
This is a project-based support for clinical, academic or business-led projects. It supports projects to develop from experimental proof of concept through to early-stage clinical trials. Research can be academic, clinical or business led but must involve an NHS partner. It does not support animal studies.
Find out more about the NIHR Invention for Innovation funding programme.
MRC Biomedical Catalyst – Confidence in Concept
Institutional funding scheme that provides small-scale flexible funding to support preliminary translational work, including demonstrating early proof of concept for new technologies. This scheme is administered centrally within organisations, not all institutions will have access to this source of funding.
Medical research council (MRC) – Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme
This is project-based support for academic-led translational projects where early stage proof of concept has already been demonstrated. Can be used to support preclinical research and development through to early stage clinical trials.
Find out more about MRC’s Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme.
Innovate UK Biomedical Catalyst – feasibility
Small-scale project based support for business-led translational projects to undertake exploratory translational work, including demonstrating early proof of concept for new technologies.
Innovate UK Biomedical Catalyst – early/primer stage
Project-based support for business-led translational projects. Can be used to support initial proof of concept, preclinical research and development through to clinically-ready prototype. Cannot be used to support clinical trials.
Innovate UK Biomedical Catalyst – late stage
Project-based support for business-led translational projects where early stage proof of concept has already been demonstrated. Can be used to support preclinical research and development through to early clinical trials.
Small Business Research Initiative – SBRI Healthcare
This is project-based support for business-led translational projects. Projects run over two stages, with an initial feasibility stage, which can be used for early stage exploratory work, followed by a more substantial follow up phase.
Find out more about how SBRI Healthcare funds research.
Cancer Research UK
Cancer Research UK provides support for projects addressing cancer challenges via a broad variety of mechanisms.
Find out more about how Cancer Research UK funds researchers.
British Heart Foundation
The British Heart Foundation provides support for projects addressing cardiovascular health challenges via a broad variety of mechanisms.
Find out more about what the British Heart Foundation funds.
Questions to consider
- What stage of development is your technology at?
- Where do you hope to progress your technology to during your project? What’s a successful outcome?
- If your project is successful, who is the most appropriate funder to support the next stage of development? If there’s more than one, how will you decide which to target and when?
- What are the qualities of high-quality applications to relevant next-stage funders?
- Will your project deliver all the evidence and prior planning required to produce a high-quality application for next-stage funding?
For further information
The Office for Life Sciences guide to navigating the innovation pathway offers an excellent overview of the downstream landscape with a particular focus on developing products for the NHS.
The NIHR research design service supports researchers to develop and design high quality research proposals for submission to NIHR funding programmes and other open, national, peer reviewed funding competitions for applied health or social care research.
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