Postcard: Travelling the globe to help improve blood cancer diagnosis techniques

Dr Alex Rothwell is a Data Scientist from the Institute of Systems, Molecular and Integrative Biology’s Computational Biology Facility. He recently spent three months travelling the globe as part of the ICURe Explore programme. Alex writes:

Recently, I was fortunate enough to participate in the ICURe Explore programme – a 12-week full-time ‘pre-accelerator’ allowing researchers to get out of the lab and explore the commercial applications of their work, funded by Innovate UK.

The project that Professor Andy Jones and I took onto ICURe began during my PhD at the University, where in collaboration with the Royal Liverpool University Hospital I investigated using machine learning to improve blood cancer diagnosis.

Flow cytometry is a high-throughput single cell analysis technique used for, among many other things, blood cancer diagnosis. Although it allows the rapid analysis of millions of cells at a time, the analysis of the data is time-consuming and challenging.

CytoLearn solves these problems by learning how human experts analyse their flow cytometry data and then using that knowledge to automatically analyse new data. This results in CytoLearn being able to analyse flow cytometry data as accurately as expert analysts in only a couple of seconds. Automated analysis of flow cytometry data has the potential to increase the diagnostic capacity of blood cancers and improve the cost-efficiency of diagnosis.

The ICURe funding gave me the opportunity to speak to clinical users of flow cytometry, other flow cytometry users such as those in academia and pharma, and providers of flow cytometry analysis software.

ICURe challenges you to speak to 100 people over 12 weeks. Despite us becoming well adapted to Zoom over the last few years, ICURe is a firm believer in the benefits of being face-to-face with the people you’re talking to. First I travelled to CYTO 2023, a cytometry congress held in Montreal, where I met flow cytometry users and companies from all over the world.

The ICURe process also encourages you to take a step back and consider other uses for the technology you’ve developed, so I next headed to Dublin to attend The MedTech Forum to understand how healthcare will be transformed in the coming years. From there, it was back over the Atlantic again to the BIO International Convention, held in Boston. There, the focus was on speaking to pharma companies to understand how they used flow cytometry and other challenges they faced in their workflow.

Following Boston was a trip slightly closer to home. I visited The Francis Crick Institute in London, who were very welcoming and invited me to London Cytometry Club that happened to be on that week. I spent the next week in Munich at automatica, the world’s leading trade fair for automation and robotics, again with the aim of understanding other potential markets for the underlying technology behind CytoLearn. My final week on ICURe was attending MEDINFO 2023 in Sydney, where I spoke to clinical and research users of flow cytometry and flow cytometry analysis software providers.

During the 12 weeks on ICURe we learnt so much about the commercial potential of CytoLearn and we’re excited about what is in store in the future. We are working with the Universities IP and Commercialisation Team to establish how best to take CytoLearn to market.

Thanks to IAA funding from the Wellcome Trust, MRC, BBSRC, EPSRC we have been able to develop a CytoLearn prototype. If you are interested in testing CytoLearn to automate your flow cytometry data analysis, feel free to get in touch