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The New Review: DISCOVER: INNOVATION: Ahead of the game: Europe's best inventors: Four decades after leaving school with no qualifications, Chris Toumazou could win this week's European inventor award. Robin McKie meets the man behind the high-speed DNA test, while, right, we profile his fellow finalists

June 15, 2014

Robin McKie

For a man who left school with no GCSEs, Chris Toumazou has done remarkably well in the intervening years. He is currently chief scientist of Imperial College London'sInstitute of Biomedical Engineering and holds more than 50 patents for medical diagnostic instruments and other devices. For good measure, he will discover on Tuesday if he has won this year's prestigious European inventor award for his creation of a lab-on-a-chip technology, a system that can test for genetic disease and drug intolerances in patients in less than 30 minutes.

It is a startling set of achievements, though Toumazou, who will be 53 next month, insists his breakthroughs have been based on the simplest approaches. "I set out to create chips that used low-energy technology and that has allowed me to develop devices that can do all their data crunching on site.

"It is the very antithesis of big data, where you collect every bit of information that you can get hold of and send the lot to a processing centre, which gets clogged up in the process. We should be looking, as much as possible, at doing local analyses before transmitting results. I am completely opposed to the concept of big data."

An example of this approach is provided by his Sensium pads, says Toumazou. The size of a large plaster, these are stuck, using simple adhesives, on patients' chests. They can then measure their heart rates, respiration, ECG signals and temperature. Crucially, these pads are cheap because of their low energy demands.

"You use them for a few days and then throw them away," he explains. "They cost about pounds 25. The US Food and Drug Administration has just approved them and I envisage Sensium pads being used with hospital patients who are recovering from operations. Instead of a ward sister going round checking each patient's health in the traditional manner, each will have a Sensium that will instantly raise the alarm if something goes wrong with a patient's heart rate or temperature."

The invention of devices such as these forms an impressive technological pedigree. But coming, as they do, from someone who had such an inglorious start to his academic career, they represent an extraordinary change in circumstances. The son of Greek Cypriot immigrants, Toumazou failed his 11-plus and left school in Cheltenham at the age of 16. "I just did not get on at my school. It completely failed to inspire me," he says.

A career in the family's catering business - "kebab restaurants and fish and chip shops", as he puts it - seemed inevitable. "It was expected of me but I felt I should do something different and as I was interested in electricity I decided to study it at the local City and Guilds. I had a year there learning how to solder wires, which is ironic, as I can hardly fix a plug today."

Toumazou did well, particularly on the theoretical side of his electrical studies. He took a two-year ordinary national diploma followed by a degree in engineering at Oxford Polytechnic, now Oxford Brookes University, and then a PhD. "I was told I had written a good thesis, so I applied to Imperial College to do a post-doc and, to my disbelief, I was accepted."

It was nothing to what was to come, however. Two years later, he was made a lecturer and then, three years after that, Toumazou - unencumbered by a single A-level - became professor of electrical engineering, the youngest professor ever appointed at Imperial. Somewhere along the road from Cheltenham, a man who once seemed destined for work in a kebab shop shifted from low to the highest possible gear and was now a major player at one of the world's most distinguished scientific centres.

"I worked really, really hard," he says. "I wanted to achieve. I wanted to deliver. I enjoyed the creative side and certainly it has been an interesting journey. If nothing else, it has made my mum and dad very happy, especially when they met the Queen when she opened my Institute of Biomedical Engineering."

When he started at Imperial in the late 80s, Toumazou's main interest was in microchips. "But I was interested in analogue, not digital, electronics," he adds. "Digital electronics is squashing signals into ones and zeros. But speech, sound and vision are all analogue signals, and in those days converting analogue to digital monopolised most of a device. I decided to find a way to make all that analogue conversion so that it could run on very, very low power, thus allowing you to make very small telephone devices."

The biological world is analogue, of course, and Toumazou's philosophy meant he could create instruments that would interface between the living and the electronic. The first outcome was his work, a collaboration with other groups, on cochlear implants. Toumazou's low-energy analogue chips made it possible to create an implantable device that would restore hearing to a child born with a seriously impaired cochlea, who would otherwise have suffered profound deafness. After that, he developed the Sensium pad and later his DNA chip technology, goals to which Toumazou was driven with extra intensity when it was discovered his eight-year-old son Marcus had a genetic condition that was slowly destroying his kidneys.

"Marcus had to go on a dialysis machine for three years after he lost his kidneys. Then he had a transplant but lost this kidney six years later. Today he is 22 and back on dialysis. I learned the hard way how desperately primitive is the technology we have for monitoring the health of someone with a chronic illness. Again, that influenced my work."

To improve health monitoring, Toumazou decided to try to put pieces of DNA in microchips and in doing so found he could make devices that would trigger signals when they came in contact with a particular DNA sample. "I had found a way to create a chip that could recognise a genetic mutation in a DNA sample placed on it. The device can tell you if you have a predisposition to a disease or whether you can metabolise a medical drug or not. A GP can get a result from a patient in 15 to 20 minutes."

To use the lab-on-a-chip system, a doctor takes a sample of their patient's saliva. DNA is extracted, certain gene sequences are amplified and, from these, an analysis can be displayed on a laptop in less than half an hour. "You will be told then and there just how your patient will react to a drug," adds Toumazou. Those individuals won't have to come to your surgery to modify their dosage depending on their reactions to the drug.

"You will know how they will react from the results of the DNA chip test that you have just carried out. Or you could test if a person has a mutation that is triggering a particular set of symptoms. The crucial point is that by using this kind of technology we can get medical diagnoses that once took days or weeks in a few minutes."

It remains Toumazou's most promising invention, though a stream of ideas continues to pour from him, including the creation of a range of genetically selected cosmetics for women, which he is marketing later this year with the former Duran Duran singer Nick Rhodes, under the title GeneU. "That is strictly business, of course," he adds. "My main work is still focused on turning the silicon technology into medical devices for the 21st century."

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Source: Observer (UK)

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