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Durham University

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Epigem issues blood challenge to Durham PhD Students.

(10 January 2017)

Could you design, build and test a microfluidic device in two days?

Sixteen Durham University PhD students in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Soft Matter and Functional Interfaces (SOFI CDT) have been challenged to find solutions to the diagnoses of rare anaemic conditions, such as sickle cell anaemia and thalassemia.

As part of their initial six month training programme at Durham, the group of students were split into two groups of eight to develop solutions to the challenge posed to them by Epigem, a polymer micro engineering company specialising in the life sciences, development and manufacture of microfluidic devices, micro optical components and film processed printed electronics.

Epigem, based in Redcar, Teesside, has a long-standing relationship with Durham University and this latest project provides the opportunity for SOFI CDT students to work on a live research project looking for ways to test for blood disorders. Epigem’s work on EU programmes RELEVANCE and COMMITMENT, and collaboration with the SOFI CDT is providing the students (comprising physicists, chemists and mathematicians) with an early opportunity to learn how to undertake research in multi-disciplinary, complex problem-solving teams. The students are gaining an appreciation of how industry operates, from the perspective of both small companies such as Epigem, and larger companies which are sponsoring SOFI.

First class training

Professor Lian Hutchings, SOFI CDT Manager said: “This is a fantastic opportunity to collaborate with a local company, provide the CDT students with first-class training and at the same time gain a better understanding of the needs of industry. Epigem is a truly innovative company and our links with it are generating powerful outcomes.

“As the students come from a variety of disciplines, including maths and physics, they bring with them different perspectives to the challenges posed and are able to develop new ideas and ways of tacking problems. Being able to do this on a live research project with an industry partner provides a great component of their initial training programme.” 

As part of the project, each group of students had to produce a 3,000 word report on their findings and deliver a 30 minute presentation to Epigem and representatives from Durham University.

One of the 16 students involved in the project is Phil Hope. Phil said: “We started the project by taking part in a range of lectures and tutorials relating to micro fluidics and its place in modern day science. We then went on a field trip to Epigem, Redcar to see how micro fluidics technology is integrated into devices that are manufactured to serve many purposes.

“As two teams we then set out to do an intensive literature review on rare blood disease and some of the surrounding issues such as the storage and synthesis of blood. It was great to try and apply our knowledge of micro fluidics to real life diagnosis issues relating to rare anemias. Following our presentation to Tim Ryan and the academics at Durham it was great to hear that Tim wanted to take some of our ideas back to the boardroom for potential implementation into a device and best of all I was on the winning team!”

Fellow student Sophie Ayscough (pictured above) added: "The project was an exciting opportunity to work on a current industry project and to see first-hand the real issues faced by industry in trying to tackle disease detection and treatment."

 Helping the lives of millions

Dr Tim Ryan, Epigem’s Managing Director said: “Few students have an opportunity to make a difference to the lives of millions of people. However, this project will contribute to helping patients with, for example, rare anaemias, and I’m sure the students will make a real difference.”

The results of the work undertaken by the students will contribute to Epigem’s work in RELEVANCE, an EU-backed project which will improve prognostic, diagnostic and therapeutic approaches on red blood cells production, function, and clearance.

SOFI CDT is a £10 million collaboration between Durham University and the Universities of Leeds and Edinburgh, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

For further information on the opportunities available at SOFI CDT see www.durham.ac.uk/soft.matter/soficdt/ 

For further information on Epigem see www.epigem.co.uk

For journalists interested in finding out more about Epigem, please contact billy.mckenna@aroprandmarketing.co.uk, 01752 894 786