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Researcher Spotlight: Prof Nigel Allinson

1 Dec, 2014

P1020299Professor Nigel Allinson is an expert in image engineering at the University of Lincoln. His work, funded by a Wellcome Trust translational grant, aims to improve the accuracy and effectiveness of proton therapy, to help target hard to treat tumours. We asked him about the potential of proton therapy to improve the outcomes for cancer patients…

What are you working on?

I’m working on developing a new imaging instrument that will make the treatment of cancer using high-energy beams of protons more accurate. This will allow us to target more difficult-to-treat tumours than before.

Proton therapy can deliver very high doses of radiation into very small volumes, this means less exposure to healthy tissue in front of the tumour and no exposure after the tumour.

If you are diagnosed with cancer then you will have an x-ray CT scan to see your internal anatomy and enable treatment planning. X-ray CT uses low-energy x-rays, but there is no easy way to relate distances for these x-rays, to the distances very high-energy protons need to travel in the body to destroy the tumour’s DNA and kill the cancer cells. In a way, it’s like we have been using two different rulers.

There can be a significant error, with the possibility of damaging healthy tissue rather than cancerous cells, so some tumours cannot be treated. If we use protons to produce the CT image then we are using the same ruler and can reduce the margin of error to down to about 2mm. That is what we’re aiming for, and if we manage this, it will be a world-first.

proton therapyI’ve built quite a few complex imaging systems, but this is the most challenging. It is more complicated than the cameras on the Rosetta spacecraft that flew to the comet, and uses enough silicon to make over 22,000 iPhone cameras. I love the challenge and enjoy working with a great team of physicists and engineers.

What does your average day involve?

P1010800I’m very closely involved with the project – having over 30 years experience in electronic engineering. I talk with other people working on the project most days. As we are spread out across the UK and in Germany as well, Skype is wonderful for keeping in touch. In Lincoln we are designing all the mechanics of the machine. That might seem like the easy bit, but the accuracy needed is very high, and the various parts create a lot of heat. We need to find a way to get rid of the excess heat, which is about the equivalent of having a one bar electric fire in a small box – not ideal!

Why is your work important?

There have been a lot of claims about the potential benefits of proton therapy and we hope that our work will permit proton therapy to reach its full potential. If we get this right it will open up other ways to treat cancer. Once we have completed this project, then the instrument will be used to examine high-energy beams of alpha particles, which could even more revolutionary.

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

More people will have “difficult” cancers successively treated, with shorter treatment sessions and reduced side-effects.

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

P1010790I have always worked in producing complicated imaging systems, mostly for scientific applications. About nine years ago, I got to lead a UK consortium on using Active Pixel Sensors for science, healthcare and security. APS are the type of imager used in all smartphones and most digital cameras. After that, I obtained a follow-on grant that focused on making very large imagers for medical applications. We made the biggest radiation-hardened silicon imager ever. Through a spin-out company, these devices and their offspring are being used commercially. Looking for another application in the same general area led us to our current work. We applied to EPSRC but they turned down our proposal – I think because they thought that they had funded me quite enough. Hence, as I never give up easily, we came to Wellcome. The rest as they say is history.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

Simply, we are doing the project we wanted to do. The team we pulled together – not just the academics, but the two companies we work with, are fantastic. In terms of career advancement, it’s the young post-docs who are the ones who will hopefully benefit the most.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?

“When will it used in a hospital?”

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

“My mother/father has cancer, will your invention help…?”

Why I dread this type of question – first, I’m an engineer, so I really unable to comment on the clinical side. Secondly, our immediate project is really research and we will only demonstrate feasibility, take lots of measurements on accurate models made from Perspex (maybe a lump of dead meat). Then it needs heavy investment from industry, followed by the time-consuming and expensive process of getting it accepted by all the regulatory bodies.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

I helped to start five companies based on research in my group – some companies sold, some collapsed and some still growing. Oh, and there’s my interest in medieval church architecture.

What keeps you awake at night?

In reality, I sleep very well, if for less than the recommended number of hours. Currently, what keeps me awake are Tawny Owls – the young birds have the spookiest of calls.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

The “official” answer is that as a Yorkshireman, I don’t take advice! Seriously, “Always work with best people who will work with you”.

Our chain reaction question, set by the previous spotlit researcher Dr Lucy Blake, is this “If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?”

The pain of filling in all those endless forms to claim expenses.

You can find out more about Professor Allinson’s work on his company website or by reading his papers on Robust Wireless Transmission of Compressed Latent Fingerprint Images and New TCP-friendly, rate-based transport protocol for media streaming applications. For more information about the Wellcome Trust’s work in translational research see our website.

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