A new device designed by Imperial PhD students aims to change the way HPV can be detected to reduce the impact of cervical cancer.
Developed by Bioengineering PhD students Sanziana Foia and Shulin Zhang, the detection platform was created to address falling rates of HPV testing.
Instead of a highly-invasive and uncomfortable swab test administered in a healthcare setting, Papcup , draws on the team’s experience of developing biosensor technology, means that menstrual blood or a shallow vaginal swab can be used to obtain the sample required for an at-home test.
“Participating in the Hackstarter competition this year enabled us to take the concept from a basic idea to developing a working prototype,” says Papcup founder and CEO Sanziana Foia. “The £500 grant was enough for us to buy the equipment and chemicals to show what could be possible.
“Winning the competition, and the £2,000 top prize, will allow us to take the next steps in to advance the prototype and broaden out the range of HPV strains that we can test for, which will improve the value of the product as we continue on our mission to change the way in which these tests are delivered.”
Inspired by real-life experiences
I was confident that the same health information could be gathered in a less invasive way, and without the need to visit a healthcare setting Sanziana Foia Founder and CEO of Papcup
The idea was inspired initially by Sanziana’s personal experience of a smear test. She wanted to see if there was a more dignified way in which the sample could be obtained in order to empower more women in the process.
“It was an uncomfortable experience and from my knowledge of biosensors and technology, I was confident that the same health information could be gathered in a less invasive way, and without the need to visit a healthcare setting – which in itself can be a barrier for many women to get tested.”
Teaming up with labmate Shulin Zhang, the pair first explored whether the data from menstrual blood could identify the presence of HPV, and then how a non-invasive device could process that sample.
“We both brought our individual expertise to solve this challenge,” says Papcup’s Head of Biosensing Zhang. “We are both based in Danny O’Hare’s group for our PhD, and during our time he has helped us become more critical thinkers and independent scientists. we are very proud of what we’ve designed so far, especially as it has been done as an extra-curricular project made possible through the Hackstarter programme.”
By participating in the programme, the pair were able to make even more use of the facilities and expertise in the Advanced Hackspace at White City, including the newly expanded Biolab.
“The community of innovators has been inspiring for us,” adds Sanziana. “And the Biolab has been instrumental in providing high-quality facilities and testing capacity as we made iterative changes to our detection platform in order to build our winning prototype. It’s been a dream to work in.”
Alongside the facilities, the team were able to leverage expertise in both product design and business skills and critical thinking. This helped them further identify the reasons why HPV smear testing may have been declining in the UK, such as the shame or trauma of the invasiveness of the test, the discomfort or pain of the test, post-testing bleeding or religious or cultural reasons.
“We know that there are an increasing number of women’s health products and technologies now being designed by women, and these are addressing the problem that many devices have been designed without empathic consideration for the women who use the products,” add the pair. “The challenge now is to go from prototype to deployment, and then deployment at scale.
“We are passionate about using our scientific expertise to create something that would positively impact women's health and quality of life.”
The duo are participating in the 2023 WE Innovate competition, run by the Imperial Enterprise Lab, and have made the semi-final stage. The final of the competition takes place on 22 June.
Hackstarter is an annual programme delivered through the Advanced Hackspace. Teams are given an initial £500 credit at the Hackspace to work on their idea alongside the Advanced Hack Fellows in the Hackspace for three months before presenting their progress at the final with a chance to win further support through additional credits.
Advances to the Hackspace
The Advanced Hackspace, located in the Invention Rooms at Imperial’s White City Campus, brings together a community of staff, students and local businesses to work on a range of projects, from extra-curricular activities that could lead to new ventures, through to prototyping for device design for academic advancement.
We built the Biolab in response to community feedback, to create a safe wet lab in the space for groups to expand the range of ‘hacking’ that they could do in relation to biomaterials and using chemicals in device design Graham Hewson Head of Incubation and Prototyping Spaces
The ever-expanding range of services and support at the Hackspace includes the Biolab, which the Papcup team used extensively during their project. It has tripled in size recently thanks to successfully securing investment from the President’s Community Fund.
“We built the Biolab in response to community feedback, to create a safe wet lab in the space for groups to expand the range of ‘hacking’ that they could do in relation to biomaterials and using chemicals in device design,” says Graham Hewson, Head of Incubation and Prototyping Spaces.
“We’ve tripled the space dedicated to this type of lab here following the unbelievable demand we’ve seen, and it’s proving popular and impactful – as evidenced by the Papcup team having made such great use of the Biolab on route to winning this year’s Hackstarter competition.”
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