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Mechanical characterisation and microstructural analysis of soft tissue cancers - towards intra-operative tissue quality assessment

School of Engineering & Physical Sciences

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Dr Yuhang Chen , Prof RL Reuben , Mr Daniel Good No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)
Edinburgh United Kingdom Bioengineering Biomedical Engineering Mechanical Engineering Mechanics Solid Mechanics

About the Project

Project Background and Application Areas

Surgery is one of the main treatments for cancer and the aim is to remove the tumour and often some normal tissue from around it, known as ‘resection margin’. Determining the size of margin is critical to tissues that are functionally important, however this has been proven susceptible to false negative, which often lead to the need of second surgery (tissue dependent due to surgical practicality) and worsened prognosis.

There is a clear need to develop a quantitative way of determining the resection margin, compatible to the current surgical robotic technologies, in order to facilitate its adoption for the purpose of tumour removal [1]. Building upon our recent research , the mechanical properties, e.g. elastic or viscoelastic, of carcinomas, taking prostate cancer as an example, are found to be manifested by the composite 'materials' of both prostate glandular components and the surrounding stroma, whose 3D microstructures can be traced back to the associated structural phenotypes [2]. By providing a quantitative understanding of relationships between mechanical properties of tissue and its underlying microscopic structures, we envisage to establish a novel capability of intra-operative tissue quality assessment by means of in-situ mechanical characterisation. Critically, such in-situ tissue quality assessment would be multi-purpose, capable of providing not only the initial surveying of the location, size and grading of the tumour but also the optimal resection margin. This, when integrated with the unique advantages of surgical robotics in its improved optical visualisation and surgical manoeuvring, would greatly enhance its applicability and accelerate its clinical translation in the field of robot-assisted surgical oncology.

The Project

This PhD project, funded by Melville Trust for Care and Cure of Cancer, is a multidisciplinary collaboration between engineering and clinical research. The engineering team at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, is led by Dr Yuhang Chen and Prof Bob Reuben, whose research expertise is in mechanical behaviour of biological tissue and medical devices. The clinical team from Department of Urology at Western General Hospital/University of Edinburgh, is led by Mr Daniel Good (Consultant Urologist) who specialists in robot-assisted urological surgeries, Dr Arran Turnbull (PI, Translational Oncology, MRC Institute of Genetics and Molecular Medicine) and Chara Ntala/Marie O’Donnell (Uropathologists, Western General Hospital and NHS Lothian) who will provide technical support for histology interpretation.

This PhD project seeks to develop novel capacity of intra-operative tissue quality assessment. It is focused on intra-operative detection and characterisation of carcinomas (laparoscopic prostatectomy being used here as an exemplar system). The research work aims to establish clinically-validated relationships between mechano- and pheno-types of prostate cancers in face of structural confounders such as benign prostate hyperplasia (BPH) and isolating disease-specific from patient-specific variations. Success in this would offer a new mechanics-based tissue-level cancer biomarker [3] that could link the mechanical properties to its pathological conditions. Crucially, this project will develop prototype force sensing modules to offer novel capacity of intra-operative tissue quality assessment using the established ‘mechanical biomarker’ of cancerous tissue.

The PhD candidate will work on the following strands:

  • to design a robust ‘system’, capable of making mechanical measurements (e.g. (visco-)elasticity) on arrays of locations on surfaces of prostate, starting from ex vivo excised prostates towards in vivo applications;
  • to develop understanding of phenotypic indices of prostate tissue through histology and microstructural analysis of the tissue samples;
  • to correlate in-situ mechanical measurement data to the phenotypic data;
  • feasibility studies towards tissue quality assessment for identifications of tumour nodules using acquired mechanical data.

PhD training and opportunities

This PhD project provides professional and personal development/training, in addition to extensive opportunities for the candidate to expand their horizon through daily interactions with a multidisciplinary network of academic, research, clinical and industrial/charity partners. The student will be enrolled at the School of Engineering and Physical Sciences, Heriot-Watt University for the duration of their candidature, and will work with the clinical team at the Western General Hospital and the University of Edinburgh on a daily basis.

This project will offer research training in the following areas:

  • Mechanical behaviour and characterisation of biological tissue;
  • Design and development of medical devices and instrumentation;
  • The clinical and surgical pathways of prostate cancer and robot-assisted surgery;
  • Microstructural analysis of heterogeneous materials (i.e. biological tissue) through image processing and microstructural reconstruction;
  • Research methods in dealing with large dataset, e.g. uncertainty quantification;
  • Participation and observation of robot-assisted surgery, gaining deeper understanding of the clinical applications behind the scientific research.
  • Support from the supervisor team for drafting and publication of journal articles;
  • Regular meetings with, and advice from, the thesis committee.


The funding for this three-year PhD project will cover tuition fees at the UK/EU home rates */** (see below) and provide stipend at the standard UKRI rate (approx. £15.5k per annum, tax free). It will also provide consumable cost of £8k per year.

The ideal candidate should be highly-motivated, have good writing/communication skills and genuine interest in research and publishing your work. Ability in working in multidisciplinary environment is essential. A first degree with strong academic record in mechanical engineering, materials engineering, biomedical engineering or other related disciplines is desired.

* EU students will be eligible for the ‘home rate’ tuition fees (fully-funded) throughout their study. Prior to starting, they will need to apply for a student visa. Refer to for more details.

** International students can also apply and may be awarded an additional scholarship from the school to cover the international tuition fees. This will be reviewed by, and at the discretion of, the School Director of Research on a case-by-case basis and is highly competitive. International applicants with strong academic records are advised to contact the PI first before formally applying. 

How to Apply

Prospective candidates should contact Dr Yuhang Chen ([Email Address Removed]) by email, with a CV (max. 2 pages) and a cover letter (max. 1 page) outlining your experience and motivation.

Formal application should be made through Heriot-Watt on-line application system ( The successful candidate will be expected to commence their study no later than 1st July 2021.

Funding Notes

* EU students can apply and will be eligible for the ‘home rate’ tuition fees throughout their study. Prior to starting, they will need to apply for a student visa. Details included.
** International students may also apply and be awarded an additional scholarship from the school to cover the tuition fees for international students. This will be reviewed by, and at the discretion of, the Director of Research at School of Engineering and Physical Sciences on a case-by-case basis and is highly competitive. International applicants with strong academic records are advised to contact the PI first before formally applying.


[1] AJ Sayari et al. (2019) Review of robotic-assisted surgery. Ann Transl Med 7(10): 224.
[2] Palacio-Torralba J, Good DW, SA McNeill et al. (2017). Histology-based homogenization analysis of soft tissue: application to prostate cancer. Journal of The Royal Society: Interface. 14: 20170088.
[3] Palacio-Torralba J, Hammer S, Good DW et al. (2015). Quantitative diagnostics of soft tissue through viscoelastic characterization using time-based instrumented palpation. Journal of the mechanical behavior of biomedical materials 41, 149-160.
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