Skip to main content

26 October 2023

€10m ERC Synergy grant win to develop revolutionary cancer treatment robot

Professor Sebastien Ourselin, Head of the School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences, is part of a research group that has been awarded a highly competitive €10m European Research Council (ERC) Synergy grant.

Image of Europe from space

Synergy Grants fund groups of two to four Principal Investigators to jointly address ambitious and complex research problems that could not be addressed by an individual PI and their team.

The group, including 3 other Principal Investigators based in Italy and the UK, brings together exceptional and complementary expertise to undertake pioneering research over the next 6 years to improve the screening and treatment for colorectal cancer (CRC).

CRC is one of the most common types of cancer worldwide, with over 1.9 million new cases and 935,000 deaths reported in 2020. Despite advances in medical technology, interventions are often carried out during the latter stages of development, leading to low patient survival rates or poor quality of life.

I am very excited to be part of this multidisciplinary European collaboration between researchers from Naples, Torino and London, and grateful to the ERC for supporting this ambitious project. Soft robotics for diagnosis and therapy has the potential to mitigate unnecessary surgery, increase survival rates and improve quality and duration of life for those affected by colorectal cancer. To achieve research translations in healthcare it is critical to work across disciplines, and here we will bring together international expertise in surgery, motion control, AI, sensors and robotics to create better outcomes for our patients.

Professor Sebastien Ourselin FReng FMedSci, Head of the School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences

The ENDOTHERANOSTICS PI Group includes Professor Ourselin, School of Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Sciences at King’s College London, with Professors Alberto Arezzo (University of Turin), Bruno Siciliano (University of Naples Federico II) and Professor Kaspar Althoefer (Queen Mary University of London).

The group aims to revolutionise the screening and treatment of CRC through the development of a tip-growing or eversion robot with a sleeve-like structure. The robot will be able to extend deep into the colon while perceiving the environment through multimodal imaging and sensing. It will also act as a conduit to transfer miniaturized instruments to the remote site within the colon for diagnosis and therapy (theranostics).

With these capabilities, the system will be able to offer:

  • Painless colon cleansing in preparation for endoscopy
  • Real-time polyp detection and tissue characterization through AI-assisted multimodal imaging
  • Effective removal of polyps by conveying a "miniature mobile operating chamber" equipped with microsurgical tools to the target through the lumen of the eversion robot.

Securing this prestigious ERC Synergy Grant reflects the scientific excellence King’s brings to research programmes at an international level. My warmest congratulations to everyone in the winning team and I encourage colleagues to consider this success as all the more reason to apply to European funding, given the recent fantastic news of the UK associating with Horizon Europe.

Professor Bashir M. Al-Hashimi CBE FREng FRS, Vice President (Research & Innovation)

Present day robotic devices are limited in dexterity and unsuitable for performing delicate tasks in remote locations such as in the depths of the colon. In contrast, soft robots demonstrate increased flexibility and adaptability in task performance, leading to improved safety when working around or within the human body.

A tip-growing or eversion robot can extend deep into hollow spaces while perceiving the environment through multimodal imaging and sensing. It will also act as a conduit to transfer miniaturised instruments to the remote site within the colon for diagnosis and therapy.

Currently, CRC screening methods are based on colonoscopy, in which a relatively stiff instrument of about 13 mm in diameter is used to inspect the colon, which can cause discomfort. The process is commonly perceived as undignified and potentially painful, which can lead to missed appointments and thus staffing and resources waste within health services. This research would look to overcome this by improving screening rates with a more patient-friendly approach alongside improving outcome rates by reducing the need for follow-up treatments.

The ERC grants, each worth around 10 million euro, will also help create some 1,000 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students, and other staff in the grantees' research teams.

I’m happy to see more pioneering researchers funded to focus on ambitious and complex scientific problems that require innovative ways to advance our knowledge. It takes the best researchers, each with unique expertise and approaches, to jointly tackle such challenges. The Synergy Grants help to tap into international talent both in Europe and around the world. I congratulate the successful applicants and look forward to seeing the results these collaborative efforts can bring!

Professor Maria Leptin, President of the ERC