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Prince Albert Industrial Fellowship will help DPhil tackle liver tumours

An Industrial Fellowship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 will support DPhil candidate Elisabeth Pickles as she continues her research into the use of MRI scanning to monitor disease.

DPhil candidate Elisabeth Pickles at her desk doing research into the use of MRI scanning to monitor disease

Worth up to £80,000 and awarded annually to nine of the UK’s most talented young scientists and engineers, Industrial Fellowships of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 were set up by Prince Albert using the profits of the 1851 Great Exhibition. They enable their recipients to make an impact on their industry and wider society, accelerating the development and commercialisation of new technologies. The Fellowships are awarded to promising research projects that have the potential to benefit British industry.

Oxford researcher Elisabeth Pickles has been announced as one of this year’s Fellows. Studying for her DPhil as an employee of Perspectum Diagnostics, Elisabeth’s project will take place both at her sponsoring company and here at the Department’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering.

She is exploring the use of quantitative MRI techniques for the diagnosis and characterisation of liver tumours, and for assessing the effects of chemotherapy and other therapies. Quantitative MRI scans treat the scanner as a scientific measuring instrument, not a camera, using it to characterise tissue according to its properties.

This has the potential to provide more accurate, specific results than current qualitative MRI scanning; whilst imaging techniques have improved over the years, today’s systems are still inadequate at early detection and diagnosis and at determining liver cancer’s response to therapy. Current black and white images rely on human subjectivity, with an average of 30% of image evaluations disputed between doctors.

Perspectum Diagnostics, the Oxford University spinout where Elisabeth is employed, currently applies quantitative MRI techniques to monitor diseases such as Hepatitis and obesity, which produce fatty liver deposits. She is keen to apply the technique to cancer diagnoses as well. In addition to the benefits of increased objectivity and speed, these techniques provide a less unpleasant experience for patients, as they do not use potentially harmful contrast agents (where chemicals are introduced to the region being imaged, to increase differences between tissues when scanned).

Elisabeth was inspired to embark on her project as a way to combine her interest in mathematics with medicine. She obtained a BSc in Mathematics and Physics with the Open University whilst working in roles at Oxford University Hospitals and the University of Oxford. This included working as a data assistant at the University’s Ludwig Cancer Research Institute, collecting data on Upper GI cancers from local hospitals. These roles, Elisabeth says, sparked her interest in cancer, imaging and translational science and she decided to pursue a career in medical imaging.

Following her graduation with First Class Honours in July 2018, she joined Perspectum Diagnostics in Oxford as a Clinical Data Analyst, where under the Industrial Fellowship programme she can examine the application of quantitative imaging technique in more detail, and under a greater number of clinical scenarios.

Elisabeth says: ““I am delighted to have been awarded a Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 Industrial Fellowship. It will provide me with the opportunity to work on a project which will hopefully benefit Perspectum whilst enabling me to develop my research skills in academia and pursue my dream of studying for a DPhil.

“It’s exciting to be working across academia and industry, where I can draw on expertise from both areas, and which will hopefully result in an output which will improve the lives of many people.”

Bernard Taylor, Chairman of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, added: “Supporting British innovation is more important than ever before. These Industrial Fellowships provide an opportunity for British businesses to conduct cutting-edge R&D and develop intellectual property at reduced cost. This year’s Industrial Fellows include some of the brightest minds in fields spanning artificial intelligence and gene editing, and include new and exciting potential treatments for cancer. These promising young researchers represent the huge diversity of talent in science and engineering that Britain has to offer.”

View the full list of 2019 Industrial Fellows.