Using artificial noses to improve cancer patients’ quality of life

Sometimes it may be difficult to find an immediate application for the research that is being developed. It is important for researchers to identify it so they can generate new technologies, innovation, and revenue that will come back to the society in multiple forms.

Projects involved

Artificial olfaction is a field of research that involves developing devices called electronic noses or e-noses, a type of technology featuring a sensor array and artificial intelligence algorithms to distinguish and evaluate odors. The technology offers exciting possibilities, including clinical applications in cancer diagnosis, screening, and surveillance.

A team of European researchers has been working on artificial olfaction through the design and development of e-nose sensors using a new class of stimulus-responsive gels.

After having established the solid scientific grounds for their disrupting technology, the researchers are now focusing on a very particular clinical application related to monitoring bladder cancer patients.

“What we want to do is firstly alleviate the burden of patients that need to go through very invasive and costly procedures. We believe we can help doctors as well, because these procedures take a lot of time and resources. Ultimately, by reducing the number of these procedures, we can relieve the pressure on the healthcare system by decreasing the costs and the resources allocated,” says Cecília Roque, professor in the Department of Chemistry at NOVA School of Science and Technology, and Principal Investigator at the Biomolecular Engineering Laboratory of the Applied Biomolecular Sciences Unit (UCIBIO).

She coordinates the project "ENSURE: Non-invasive follow-up of urinary tract cancers" that explores an innovative non-invasive, rapid, and low-cost method of bladder cancer surveillance by making use of the e-nose technology developed in a previous project – “SCENT: Hybrid Gels for Rapid Microbial Detection”. Both projects benefited from funding from the European Research Council (ERC).

Maximizing research results

As a researcher, Cecília Roque is primarily focused on the innovation process, but she is also well aware of the importance of maximizing research impact: reaching full potential, taking a collaborative and inclusive approach, and building a foundation for a successful business. That’s why the team works with stakeholders from hospitals and patient groups to better understand what the real problem is and to adapt the research to achieve effective solutions.

In this journey, having a solution that works is just the first step. Next, researchers need to raise people’s interest, get them enthusiastic and encourage them to co-create or help scientists tailor the technology according to people’s needs.

While looking for ways to magnify research benefits and applicability in the market, the team turned to Horizon Results Booster for support on Portfolio Dissemination & Exploitation Strategy and Business Plan Development.

“Sometimes it may be difficult to find an immediate application for the research that is being developed. It is important for researchers to identify it so they can generate new technologies, innovation, and revenue that will come back to the society in multiple forms,” says the project coordinator.

Roque, who had taken entrepreneurial courses in the past, was already familiar with how to develop a business strategy. Still, she says, it was important to identify first the real need and the best application of research results.

“Sometimes it is even difficult to identify and define the real problem because we are so in love with science and the research process that it is a challenging exercise to go back and think about how we can apply what we just discovered to have the maximum impact. And this is something that the Horizon Results Booster helped a lot with,” says the researcher. Most universities, she adds, have internal services to support technology transfer, which was very useful in her team’s case. “However, with Horizon Results Booster we were able to go in depth, and work with experts for two months to reach our objectives. Having this kind of commitment and focusing on this particular side of the project was extremely important.”

One immediate benefit of getting tailored support on maximizing the research impact was attracting new funding and pushing the research to the next stage.

“In the ERC SCENT project, we developed the foundation and looked for ways of transferring these results, and it was with the Horizon Results Booster support that we actually set up the application for a Proof of Concept focused on exploitation. It helped us building a business case and we worked together to apply for an ERC POC with ENSURE, dedicated solely on exploitation”, says Cecília Roque.

The team is currently focusing on applying the technology, setting up a company, and turning it into a successful business.

Why is it important?

With 573,000 new cases and 213,000 deaths in 2020, bladder cancer is the most common of the urinary system and has the highest cost per patient among all cancers, which is mainly due to demanding surveillance that employs invasive techniques to the patient.

To date, cystoscopy remains the standard in diagnosis, but it is invasive and painful. The electronic nose has the potential to drastically reduce the number of times patients have to undergo the associated invasive techniques, as bladder cancer emits specific volatile organic compounds that can be detected by an electronic nose.

Both SCENT and ENSURE are funded by the ERC, but ENSURE is a POC grant which means that researchers must use the funding to move from theory to practice: understand the feasibility of scientific concepts under development as well as explore business opportunities or prepare patent applications.

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