The University of Nottingham spin-out company Cerca Magnetics Limited (Cerca) was formed in partnership with UK company Magnetic Shields Limited (MSL) to bring the world’s most advanced functional brain scanner to market.
The Cerca Scanner is the world’s first “wearable” magnetoencephalography (MEG) system, allowing patients to move freely during the scan and offering unprecedented insights on brain development and function and severe neurological illnesses, such as epilepsy.
Conventional MEG scanners are static and cumbersome in order to accommodate super-cooled magnetic field detectors, which are hard to operate close to the head. It cannot adapt to different head shapes and sizes and patients must remain still for long periods.
The Cerca system uses quantum sensors called optically pumped magnetometers or OPMs that do not require cryogenic cooling. These sensors are also lightweight and similar in size to a Lego brick, which means they can be mounted in a helmet which the patient wears. The helmet can ostensibly adapt to any head shape or size, and because it is lightweight and moves with the head, it is largely insensitive to motion. No thermally insulating gap between scalp and sensor is required, allowing the sensors closer to the head to capture higher amplitude signal and better data.
The scanner opens up exciting possibilities for imaging babies and children. Neurological disorders, like epilepsy, often strike in young children and this new system will provide new information to medical professionals which they can use in treatment planning.
The University of Nottingham research team is led by Professor Matt Brookes and Professor Richard Bowtell of the School of Physics and Astronomy and is based in the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre.
The company predicts it will employ 30 – 50 full time staff by 2025, with at least 85% being highly skilled and/or professionally qualified. The company is forecasting three full-time and four part-time staff by the end of 2021, all highly skilled physicists, engineers or other qualified professionals.
The Cerca leadership team is CEO David Woolger, Chief Technical Officer Dr Elena Boto and Chairman, Professor Matt Brookes. Both Matt and Elena are from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham.
The Cerca system’s very low field magnetic environment is produced for Cerca by Magnetic Shield Limited (MSL). All of MSL’s manufacturing is within the UK. As a direct result of Cerca’s demand, MSL estimate an additional 20+ skilled manufacturing and engineering roles will be required. A specialised helmet required for the Cerca system is produced by another University of Nottingham spin-out, Added Scientific Limited. The final key element of the system is the sensors; these are produced in the USA by QuSpin Inc. – a world leader in quantum sensing.
Cerca currently has eight orders for research equipment from five institutions, based in Canada, USA and UK. The orders amount to £1.5m of sales, the majority of this is to be delivered in 2021. Cerca also has a pipeline of £92m of open quotations to some of the leading neurological research centres in the world.
Whilst Cerca’s initial focus is on brain imaging, the overall strategy is to develop a bio-magnetic imaging company. As the use of the sensors is developed in other fields, such as foetal, heart and muscular, Cerca will look to work with clinical experts across the world to validate and translate the technology to the clinical market. As Cerca develops the technology, the company will support centres of excellence, hospitals and NHS Trusts within the region.
The research and funding journey
In 2015, The UK National Quantum Technologies Programme (NQTP) funded a single research assistant at the university’s Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre to investigate what would happen if, by eliminating cryogenics, MEG sensors moved closer to the scalp.
By 2016, results showed that scalp mounted sensors would afford a five-fold increase in sensitivity, and a dramatic improvement in spatial resolution.
Following these early theoretical insights, using internal funding to encourage interdisciplinary research into quantum technology, the Nottingham team purchased the world’s first miniaturised commercial OPM from the newly formed USA spin-out company QuSpin Inc. This was used to measure magnetic fields from a human brain.
In 2017, the pilot data generated by the Nottingham team using the single sensor was sufficient to secure a £1.6m Wellcome collaboration grant that allowed Nottingham to share expertise with neuroscientists at University College London , building a prototype wearable OPM-based MEG system – the world’s first wearable MEG system.
Critical to building a wearable and motion robust MEG system is accurate control of background field. To enable this, NQTP (EPSRC) funding supported the building of a new type of hybrid shielded room and Nottingham researchers went on to work with established partner Magnetic Shields Limited to develop lighter enclosures for the scanner with unprecedented shielding.
This project was supported by a £900,000 grant from Innovate UK in 2019, and resulted in a novel magnetically controlled environment, installed at the Neville Childhood Epilepsy Centre operated by Young Epilepsy.
In December 2019, further NQTP funding of £2.3m for work on shielding and MEG sensor arrays moved the system towards commercialisation, and recently (May 2021) secured funding from EPSRC and Innovate UK funding (£1.1m and £50K respectively) will further develop the system for infants.
Spin-out company, Cerca Magnetics Limited (Cerca) was launched in December 2020.
The first OPM-MEG clinical trials, funded by the Wolfson Institute, will be conducted in autumn 2021 by Young Epilepsy, in collaboration with clinicians at Great Ormond Street Hospital.