The Molecular Flow Sensor Team
Winner: 2022 Analytical Division Horizon Prize:
Sir George Stokes Award
For the development of a molecular flow sensor for non-invasive breath analysis to provide measurements of respiratory disease and cardiac output.
Celebrate The Molecular Flow Sensor Team
Scientists based at the University of Oxford have developed a molecular flow sensor for lung function measurement.
The collaboration, between chemists, physiologists, computer modellers and clinicians, developed the instrument to study the behaviour of the human lung with unprecedented accuracy. Using a combination of optical, mechanical, signal processing and computational techniques, a small instrument called a Molecular Flow Sensor was constructed, which can make highly precise, non-invasive measurements of breath gases.Read more
The lung takes oxygen in from the air and expels the gases carbon dioxide and water vapour produced by metabolism. The team count the molecules of gases in and out on a breath-by-breath basis by making use of the ways in which they absorb various frequencies of light from tiny laser sources – the technique known as spectroscopy.
From these measurements the team can learn about any difficulties the body is having with its consumption of oxygen, and about the way in which the lung is working. These results have enabled them to use the instrument to investigate a variety of lung diseases. For example, they have shown that there are differences in measure of lung function between young smokers and healthy controls where standard tests offer no distinction. They are able to quantify lung function changes in asthma patients on treatment with drugs, and predict those patients who need an increase in their medication.
The sensor has been used as a tool in several respiratory medical studies, including measuring the lung function of asthma and cystic fibrosis sufferers as well as for investigations into long COVID. All the results point to the effectiveness of the sensor in early diagnosis and management of lung disease.
The teamSee full team
Asma Alamoudi, D.Phil. student, University of Oxford (Physiology)
Dr Luca Ciaffoni, Post Doc, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
John Couper, Optics Engineer, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
Dr Beth Cummings, D.Phil. student, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
Matthew Frise, Clinician, Royal Berkshire Hospitals
Dr Chris Fullerton, Post Doc, University of Oxford (Physiology)
Dr Michelle Hamilton, Post Doc, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
Professor Gus Hancock, Professor of Chemistry, University of Oxford
Philip Hurst, Electronics, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
Snapper Magor-Elliott, D.Phil student, University of Oxford (Physiology)
Dr Stuart McKechnie, Clinician, Oxford University Hospitals
Dr James Mountain, D. Phil student, University of Oxford (Physiology)
Dr David O'Neill, Post Doc, University of Oxford (Physiology)
Professor Ian Pavord, Professor of Respiratory Medicine, Oxford University Hospitals
Dr Nayia Petousi, Clinician, Oxford University Hospitals
Dr Lorenzo Petralia, Post Doc, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
Dr Rob Peverall, Post Doc, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
Tim Pragnall, Computation, University of Oxford (Physiology)
Jennifer Redmond, D. Phil Student, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
Dr Graham Richmond, Post Doc, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
Professor Grant Ritchie, Professor of Chemistry, University of Oxford
Professor Peter Robbins, Professor of Physiology, University of Oxford
Dominic Sandhu, D.Phil student, University of Oxford (Physiology)
Peter Santer, D.Phil student, University of Oxford (Physiology)
Akshay Shah, Clinician, Oxford University Hospitals
Dr Nick Smith, Post Doc, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
Dr Nick Talbot, Clinician, Oxford University Hospitals
Kevin Valentine, Head of Electronics, University of Oxford (Chemistry)
Professor Jonathan Whiteley, Professor of Computational Biology, University of Oxford
Haopeng Xu, D. Phil student, University of Oxford (Physiology)
What were the biggest challenges in this project?
Dr Chris Fullerton: The team spans several disciplines. Members are chemists, physiologists, experts in optics and electronics and medical doctors. Finding ways to communicate and collaborate effectively when we all come from such different backgrounds was challenging, but essential to making this project successful.
What different strengths did different people bring to the team?
Dr Lorenzo Petralia: I find working in such a multidisciplinary team rewarding and the key to tackling cross-cutting research, as problem solving and creativity are boosted by the sheer variety of know-how. Plus, given the wide range of research backgrounds of the various team members, you can be almost be certain to learn something new on a daily basis from one of your colleagues.
Why is this work so important and exciting?
Professor Peter Robbins: The technology provides a step change away from simply monitoring the concentrations of the components of the respired gas to a position where we know the molar flow rates of each gas in a highly precise and highly time-resolved way. In turn, this allows us to use conservation of mass to estimate a number of important physiological parameters relating to patients. This is simply not possible if all one knows is airway concentrations.
Where do you see the biggest impact of this technology/research being?
Professor Peter Robbins: It provides a platform technology for use in medicine, and has potential applications in respiratory medicine, in urgent and in critical care medicine.
Dr Chris Fullerton: The potential for early diagnosis of respiratory diseases like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease before they become irreversible is very exciting.
How will this work be used in real life applications?
Dr Nick Smith: The driving force for this project is the clinical application of this technology. Breath-by-breath oxygen consumptions, cardiac outputs, and parameters reflecting lung inhomogeneity are obtainable in a non-invasive way using this technology. The key objective is to prove the clinical usefulness of these physiological parameters, ultimately enabling clinicians to improve patient outcomes.
Professor Gus Hancock: It already is. My personal hope is that it will be able to be used to monitor cardiac output in anaesthetised patients routinely and in a non-invasive fashion.
What is the importance of collaboration in the chemical sciences?
Kevin Valentine: Collaboration in chemistry is very important. Many techniques and skills used by one branch of chemistry can be adopted by different branches to improve their results. Lack of skills and knowledge can often hold back research.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in chemistry?
Professor Grant Ritchie: Whatever career you choose, do it because you are passionate about it and enjoy it! Chemistry is such a varied subject that you are almost guaranteed to find multiple areas of inspiration. However, while intellect and practical talent are of course very important, it really is a case of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration – you need to work hard and to do this for a prolonged period of time requires you to have an underlying passion for the subject.