Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust has become the first hospital in the UK to trial a truly real-time tracking system for cancer tissue samples.

The system is based on radio frequency identification (RFID) technology which is widely used in the retail and logistics industry to track assets and has been specially adapted to help improve treatment for people with serious and life-threatening conditions. 

This new system, invented by the trust’s biomedical scientist and pathology innovation lead, Dil Rathore, helps to prevent sample loss, speed up processing and increase efficiency in histopathology services could now be adopted by hospitals around the world. 

In 2021, Leeds Hospitals Charity were able to invest £10,000 to kickstart Mr Rathore’s important work, when he applied for funding through our innovation funding call, thanks to generous gifts in Wills.

Mr Rathore said:

“This innovation is truly transformational and offers enhanced safety and reliability for all of our patients, while dramatically improving processes for our staff members and wider teams. No other system has the capabilities and functions we have created here at the Leeds Teaching Hospitals. Innovation plays a key role within Pathology services, as we continuously strive to seek those technologies and solutions which could help give our patients the very best in healthcare outcomes”.

Mr Rathore came up with the idea after working in the histopathology department and seeing the potential to automate manual processes.  He developed the system with help from the Innovation Pop-Up, a support programme at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust for clinicians and entrepreneurs with ideas for new products and services that solve healthcare challenges. Leeds Hospitals Charity has also committed £70,000 to support the Innovation Pop-Up.

The loss of tissue samples has potentially devastating consequences for patients including the need to redo biopsies, delays in diagnosis and administering treatment and the resulting distress this can cause. Lost samples also cost the NHS an estimated £157m in claims every year. 

When samples come in, they are processed into blocks of paraffin wax which are then cut into very thin slices for microscopic examination by histopathologists. The department at Leeds receives 60,000 cases every year, generating more than 250,000 blocks and nearly one million slides. This caseload is expected to rise as a result of an ageing population.

Existing tracking systems can only provide historic information about where a sample has been, rather than its current location, and are vulnerable to human error as they need manual scanning. 

The new system allows continuous tracking by adding custom tags with RFID technology to the cassettes holding the blocks and installing antenna and readers throughout the department.  The breakthrough improves the range, readability and resilience of RFID technology in the harsh processing conditions. 

Initial testing at Leeds has demonstrated ‘proof of concept’ with the system set to undergo larger scale evaluation in the coming months.