York academic awarded prestigious UKRI Fellowship to understand how we can use bioelectric approaches to help humans heal better

News | Posted on Monday 4 December 2023

Dr Stuart Higgins has been awarded a Future Leaders Fellowship by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to investigate the question Can we heal people using electricity?

Dr Stuart Higgins
Dr Stuart Higgins

The £1.7 million Fellowship award will enable Dr Higgins to bring together different research disciplines to examine the fundamental role that electricity plays in regulating life and establish new methods for developing our understanding of bioelectricity.

“For centuries, scientists have been fascinated by the voltages, currents and impulses found inside living things,” said Dr Higgins, an academic at the School of Physics, Engineering and Technology at the University of York. “That research has led to the engineering of bioelectronic devices such as pacemakers that improve our quality of life. It’s also revealed that there’s more to learn about the role of electricity in biology.

“This Fellowship will allow me to investigate how bioelectrical signalling influences multiple aspects of life, such as the fundamental shape and size of our organs, and how it affects the ability of our tissues to heal, or even regenerate.”

The Fellowship will fund the creation of a highly interdisciplinary team, bringing together biologists, physicists and engineers. Dr Higgins will work closely with Dr James Briscoe, expert in developmental biology from The Francis Crick Institute. Together the team will engineer new, complex bioelectronic devices that can talk electrically to cells and tissues, to uncover the fundamental mechanisms behind various bioelectric behaviours.

“A big part of this Fellowship is also the creation of a new UK Bioelectricity, Bioelectronics and Biomaterials Network,” added Dr Higgins, “to bring together scientists, clinicians and industry. Working together we’ll not only advance our understanding of bioelectricity but also pave the way for innovative applications in healthcare."

UKRI Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said: “UKRI’s Future Leaders Fellowships provide researchers and innovators with long-term support and training, giving them the freedom to explore adventurous new ideas, and to build dynamic careers that break down the boundaries between sectors and disciplines. The fellows announced today illustrate how this scheme empowers talented researchers and innovators to build the diverse and connected research and innovation system we need to shorten the distance between discovery and prosperity across the UK.” 

Professor Kieran Gibson, Head of the School of Physics, Engineering and Technology, anticipates remarkable outcomes from the research. “This project will significantly increase our understanding of bioelectricity, transforming the way in which we treat diseases in the future. It’s a significant opportunity to propel Stuart’s research, enabling him to make new discoveries and innovations in bioelectrical research that will make a difference to us all.”