Imperial College London

New cross-disciplinary Collaborations Address Societal Challenges


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New cross-disciplinary research dealing with global challenges is progressing due to 2021 IMSE seed funding

The Institute for Molecular Science and Engineering (IMSE) has funded new cross-disciplinary research to address societal challenges.

Six new cross-disciplinary, collaborative projects were funded by IMSE in 2021, to initiate new collaborations and take existing research in new directions. The Institute received 31 proposals for seed-funding in 2021; 6 cross-College projects were selected for IMSE funding, receiving over £125k of IMSE funds in total.  

The projects addressed a range of societal challenges, from pollution generated by vehicle tyres, to understanding why bone fractures, and developing new antimicrobial materials for surgical applications.    

The researchers from these teams explain the progress made during the projects, and how IMSE’s support has helped them. 

Understanding why osteoporosis weakens bones 

Osteoporosis is an age-related disease?that?causes bones to become brittle and fracture,?affecting?200 million?people?worldwide. Hip-fractures are the most serious,?killing?more than?3 in 10 people and leaving 2 in?10 needing constant?nursing?care. To?improve health and well-being for people who suffer with osteoporosis, we need?better clinical care and more effective fracture prevention. 

Dr Richard Abel, Dr Ulrich Hansen, Professor Daniele Dini and Professor Nic Harrison developed a dynamic computer model of bone at the nanoscale. This allowed them to test the effect of ageing on collagen (which makes up bone structure at a molecular level). The team, from the Departments of Surgery & Cancer, Mechanical Engineering, and Chemistry, were successful in creating an atom-level computer model of human collagen protein.  

Dr Abel commented that, “The seed funding has been so good for this project.  We have a good team now to take the research forward.” A new PhD project is planned to work on the next steps in this project, and there are currently two new grant proposals being developed with assistance from IMSE. 

Rubber tyre pollution 

The seed funding has been so good for this project.  We have a good team now to take the research forward. Dr Richard Abel

Pollution formed of particles from rubber tyres is comparable to exhaust emissions from vehicles, and it is the main source of ocean microplastics. There is also increasing evidence that links such particulate pollution to human health conditions. But what can be done to solve this problem? 

Dr Marc Masen (Mechanical Engineering) and Prof Robert Shorten (Design Engineering) supervised two UROP students working on this problem. The engineering aims of the project were to investigate the mechanisms involved in generating tyre particulates, to characterise the particulates and surfaces using mechanical, chemical and toxicological methods, and to demonstrate the functional implications by developing a prototype system for tyre particle mitigation.  

The experimental findings from this IMSE-funded project are being used to develop a vehicle-based tyre-emission mitigation strategy. This strategy proposes to give front and rear tyres different characteristics, to combine durability with tyre performance and safety, thereby reducing pollution.  

Two scientific papers have already been submitted on the work, and several follow-on projects by PhD and Masters students are underway.  

Switching on anti-viral surfactants with light 

Dr Gunjan Tyagi, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Chemical Engineering, led a team of researchers from the departments of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry in a collaboration with Professor Rachel Evans from Cambridge University.  The project aimed to create surfactants with anti-viral and anti-microbial effects that could be “switched on” with light. Initial results suggest that one of the surfactants developed will be highly effective.   

The team are currently in discussions with one company that is interested in the work. They are currently writing up a paper for publication, and Dr Tyagi is developing a Fellowship proposal based on this work. 

Rapid tests for respiratory disease 

Another post-doctoral researcher, Dr Ruth Reid, also lead a cross-disciplinary project, with Dr Pantelis Georgiou and others from the departments of Infectious Disease and Electrical & Electronic Engineering. Current testing of respiratory infectious diseases is laborious, expensive and time consuming. Such diseases, including COVID-19, are a massive burden to health systems globally. Standard detection methods require skilled professionals and around 3 hours for sample preparation and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing. There is a clear need to develop a rapid and cheap diagnostic for respiratory infectious diseases. 


Dr Reid’s team successfully adapted existed technology that they had originally developed for a different purpose. Patented SmartLid was originally developed to be used with swabs. SmartLidTM was successfully adapted to provide a rapid (less than 5 minutes) and inexpensive test from saliva for respiratory infections. No user training is required, and each test costs just 50 pence. The team is currently writing up their results for publication 

Ultrasound delivery of nanobodies to the brain 

Alzheimer's disease (AD) and other forms of dementia affect 54 million people worldwide; this number is predicted to rise to 152 million by 2050. Despite decades of drug development, no drug on the market can reverse the progression of the disease. Antibodies have been a promising class of drug for over 20 years, however they have had limited success in patients.  This is because they are blocked from entering the brain by the blood-brain barrier.  

focused ultrasound experimental setup
focused ultrasound experimental setup

The aim of this project was to evaluate whether ultrasound could be used to deliver antibodies across the blood-brain barrier and target the Aβ plaques that affect Alzheimer’s disease sufferers. The project brought together a new collaboration: Dr James Choi (Department of Bioengineering), Dr Francesco Aprile (Chemistry), Professor Nicholas Long (Chemistry), and Professor Magdalena Sastre (Medicine). They discovered that ultrasound can be used to deliver antibodies across the blood-brain barrier.   

Dr Choi commented that “This funding was invaluable - it brought together this team and allowed us to gain the preliminary data.”  The team is now planning further experiments, following on from the initial results from the IMSE seed-fund project.  

Antimicrobial materials for surgical applications 

More than 10 million surgical procedures are carried out in the UK each year. Surgical site infections (SSI’s) occur in as many as 10% of some procedures. Patients often require extended hospitalisation and advanced wound care. But no meshes (to help repair and strengthen surgical sites) with antimicrobial properties are currently commercially available. 

The cross-College team comprised of Professor Daryl Williams (Chemical Engineering), Professor Ramesh Wigneshweraraj (Infectious Disease), Dr Gerald Larrouy-Maumus (Life Sciences), Dr James Kinross and Dr Sanjay Purkayastha (Surgery & Cancer), with support from Dr Jon Palmer.  The team evaluated prototype antimicrobial surface treatments against a range of bacteria, in collaboration with a commercial partner. A new and potentially effective antimicrobial surface treatment for wound dressings and surgical meshes was identified.  

Symposium: “IMSE seed-funded projects: Emerging areas in science and engineering” 

Staff and students at Imperial College London are invited to join a symposium on the afternoon of 27th January 2022, where the scientific outcomes of these projects will be presented. For more information, please contact  

2022 call for proposals 

IMSE has recently launched the call for project proposals for 2022 seed funding.  If you are interested in attending the sandpit events or submitting a proposal and have not received the details by email, please contact The call is open to Imperial academics, fellows and PDRAs.  


Dr Steph Pendlebury

Dr Steph Pendlebury
Faculty of Engineering

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Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 0901

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Sustainability, Environment, Dementia, Climate-change, Lung-disease, Events, Bacteria, Drug-discovery, Brain, Drugs, Global-challenges-Engineering
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