Research in Focus: Raman Against Respiratory Infection

As part of #BiofilmWeek, we’re highlighting interesting and exciting biofilm research being undertaken across our NBIC partner research institutions by early career researchers, PhD students and our Interdisciplinary Research Fellows.

We interviewed Callum Highmore, NBIC Interdisciplinary Research Fellow from the University of Southampton. Callum tells us all about his research surrounding Raman spectroscopy.

Tell us about your project

My main project is looking at Raman spectroscopy as a rapid diagnostic tool for respiratory infection. We have a few collaborators including PhD student, Adam Lister from Chemistry at the University Southampton, helping out on the Raman spectrometer, and Ryan Morris from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh. The project is focused mainly in the health sector, but we’re hoping there can be many more applications as we get deeper into the research.


What is the current situation within the sector?

Currently the diagnosis of respiratory infection relies on culture methods, and that can take a few days, especially when you’re factoring in time to measure antibiotic sensitivity, and there is currently no direct tool to diagnose biofilm infection. In the case of cystic fibrosis, rapid and effective antibiotic treatment is vital to improve the quality of life, and we think that we can greatly improve on the current model with Raman spectroscopy.

Raman Against Respiratory Infection
Coherent anti-Stokes Raman spectroscopy (CARS) label-free image of a PAO1 biofilm, false colour. Excitation at 797 nm indicates the presence of lipids (red), protein (green), and DNA (blue).

How will this research impact on the public?

By improving on diagnosis times and accuracy, we hope to make a real difference to the quality of life of cystic fibrosis patients, and other sufferers of respiratory infections, and hopefully even save some lives. More widely, this project will lead to better targeted antibiotic treatments, which is important in the long term to reduce the threat of widespread antimicrobial resistance. 


Do you need to overcome any challenges in order to achieve impact? 

At the moment we’re working with some quite big and expensive machines, so our primary challenge to overcome will be the accessibility of the equipment to the healthcare sector. This project should provide pilot data to work towards machine learning solutions that will make faster, more effective diagnoses. Other projects elsewhere are working on the miniaturisation of our equipment, so hopefully in the future we can tie these things together and make a real difference.

How do you see work as distinctive from other research taking place in your field?

There are a couple of ways that our research is distinctive in the field. There are other research groups looking at cutting cultured transfer antibiotic sensitivity testing. Our Raman technique gives us a wide range of phenotypic data in addition to antibiotic sensitivity profiles, like biofilm formation. In the field of Raman study there has been prior work looking at using it as a diagnostic tool, but they often use techniques that lengthen sample prep time, and require more specialised expertise, for example surface-enhanced Raman spectrometry. We’ve developed a method that minimises sample prep time and processes with improved accuracy.


Have any key milestones been completed?

We’ve recently submitted our first paper on the subject for publication. In the paper we show that we can detect the respiratory pathogens down to the strain level, with near 100% accuracy without using labels, and we can do so with the pathogens mixed into artificial sputum. We have a way to go before we can work with patient samples, but these are great steps to begin with.


How has NBIC supported you?

Being an NBIC funded Research Fellow has really helped with both my professional development and with the progression of my research. We received some NBIC seed funding money, which has helped us open up a new dimension for this project, where we can use Raman imaging to start to interrogate how biofilms sit together and interact without the use of labels. This will give us some important data for future fundamental studies into biofilms, particularly regarding how different species take prominence in infection and what that might mean for patients. NBIC has also offered a valuable framework for me to work with companies on several different projects, which pays for my time so I can work on this main Raman project for longer.  

Find out more

If you are interested in learning more about this project and would like to connect with Callum please contact NBIC at


Callum Highmore, NBIC Interdisciplinary Research Fellow from the University of Southampton.

Raman Against Respiratory Infection