Superbugs: Incentivising medtech to deliver solutions

  • Posted on 19.06.2014

Superbugs: Incentivising medtech to deliver solutions


Anna Williams

Lead Science and Technology Researcher


The £10 million pound Longitude Prize forms another route to funding vital medical and healthcare research, from antimicrobial resistance, to paralysis and dementia.

MedTech is transforming the world in which we live; we are healthier and more able than ever before. However, there are still a number of fundamental challenges that we face both locally and globally. The launch of the Longitude Prize 2014, with it’s £10 million prize fund, is seeking solutions to some of these fundamental scientific challenges. Antibiotic resistance, paralysis and dementia are on the shortlist of issues that could reap a £10m research windfall. The MedTech community has a vital and integral role to play, harnessing its power to innovate and accelerate towards the winning solutions!

The British public is being asked to cast the deciding vote to choose which challenge the Longitude Prize 2014 should focus on. Three out of a total of six challenges have implications for medicine and healthcare, that’s half the shortlisted challenges. This not only reflects the global importance of improving healthcare, but it also highlights the importance of MedTech as discipline. From dementia to antimicrobial resistance and paralysis, these challenges are diverse and require lateral thinking, which we so often see in the entrepreneurial MedTech community. Nesta, with the support of the Technology Strategy Board has developed the prize, and the Longitude Committee identified these six challenges with careful consideration to ensure a science prize might be the most appropriate mechanism to stimulate innovation and collaboration that might otherwise not occur.


The preservation of antibiotics and the production of novel alternatives is vital to our future survival. Many existing antimicrobials are becoming less effective, as bacterial colonies are developing resistant to treatment, while the inappropriate use and misuse of these medicines is causing an acceleration of the numbers of reported cases of resistance globally. The pipeline for the development of new antibiotics is at an all time low and initiatives to implement behavioural and education programmes are in their infancy. Most policy proposals to tackle antimicrobial resistance put forward two main points for action: Action to conserve the antimicrobials that we already have, and action to accelerate solutions in diagnosis and drug development.

For the first time, antimicrobial resistance topped the agenda at the G8 meeting of science ministers last year. While solutions have been proposed to incentivise and accelerate solutions in drug development with initiatives such as, Advanced Market Agreements (AMAs) and Product Development Partnerships (PDPs), challenge prizes still have an important role to play. The Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies has highlighted the need to encourage a range of incentives to address the currently stagnated pipeline, primarily she proposes the use of PDPs, AMAs and Science Prizes as well as changes in patent agreements, to extend the patent period from twenty years to, say, twenty-five years.

Antibiotics underpin all modern medicine. It is vital that health professionals can make increasingly accurate prescriptions, reducing the number of broad-spectrum antibiotics used. There are several interesting MedTech and biomedical research groups already working in this area. For example, RAPP-ID are working on point-of-care test platforms for infectious diseases. But as Rangarajan Sampath mentioned in his blog, current culture based techniques are often inaccurate for bacterial diagnosis and we require innovation to improve patient care. The Longitude Prize for antibiotics will incentivise this much needed innovation, competitors will be asked to develop a cheap, rapid and extremely accurate point of care test that can enable practitioners to diagnose a bacterial infection in a variety of health care settings.


Paralysis can be devastating, and affects people with a range of medical conditions from stroke to nerve damage. Although some types of paralysis can be improved through intense rehabilitation, there is no effective treatment to restore the function of the nervous system. To the outside world, this limited mobility is the main symptom of paralysis. In reality, numerous secondary conditions dramatically affect the day to day life of those with paralysis. These secondary symptoms often include loss of normal bladder and bowel function, sexual function, low blood pressure, the formation of blood clots, pneumonia, neuropathic pain, spasticity and muscle spasms.

Given the multiple causes of paralysis, for example, stroke, spinal cord injury, and multiple sclerosis, a total cure for paralysis is distant goal for medical science. In the meantime, there is an extraordinary opportunity to develop incremental solutions that restore freedom to those who have been paralysed. Therefore the paralysis prize seeks solutions that could restore movement to individuals with any form of paralysis, in an easy light and useable form. The innovation must also address the secondary symptoms of paralysis.

The beauty of this prize is that there is scope for new forms of collaborations within the MedTech industry. For example, Neuroprosthetics is an area of research that has seen a significant progress in the past decade, some treatments focus on replacement strategies by recording the electrical signals of neurons in the brain and translating them into the movement of devices such as robotic arms. Regenerative medicine has also made a lot of progress towards finding a cure for paralysis, but solutions are still in an early phase. Developments in robotics, bioengineering, and artificial intelligence have led to innovative technological solutions that offer support to people with paralysis. The emergence of assistive devices such as powered exoskeletons like REX, are an amazing feat of engineering, however all of the current fields of research need future refinement and could benefit from future collaboration in order to win the prize.


It is estimated that 135 million people worldwide will have dementia by 2050.

In order to solve the problems posed by dementia, we need a cure, condition-altering treatment or a robust preventative intervention. New treatments, for instance anti-tau drugs, are currently being developed and could potentially improve cognitive functioning, but it could be many years before they are approved for clinical use, if at all. As with all chronic conditions, care plays a critical role in the management of dementia. This care will usually take the form of emotional, cognitive, and physical support from paid carers, but also from close family members, and friends.

Studies suggest that telecare systems and home automation have great potential to reduce the cost of chronic conditions where management is key. The largest barrier to success of the systems that currently exist is that they are not well suited to the nature
of dementia; for instance, they will often require interacting with new, unfamiliar devices or change established patterns of behavior in order to acquire meaningful information, things which many dementia sufferers would find difficult. However, there are a range of novel technologies that are in development, from simple location devices and fall sensors, to more complex ambient sensor systems such as the ambient kitchen developed by Newcastle University. Although stand-alone technologies exist, the prize for Dementia will focus on the development of assistive technologies that deliver an exceptional level of care, while rewarding innovation that provides an integrated home system of ambient technologies that support people with dementia to live independently in their own homes for longer.

Many of these issues are already being worked on by experts in a diverse range of science and technology disciplines related to medicine and healthcare. Three other non-medical challenge areas are also available to vote on: water, food and flight. Prizes open up new opportunities and we are throwing down the gauntlet to the MedTech community to provide new innovation. In Autumn 2014, we open the challenge to innovators across the world to solve the public’s chosen problem.

Find out more and vote for your chosen challenge here:

Watch the BBC horizon documentary about the Longitude prize here:

Twitter: @Longitude_prize

 – Anna Williams, Lead Science and Technology Researcher, Longitude Prize

Editor’s Note: This post is part 2 of a 4-part series on Superbugs. It gives a Foundation View on the Superbugs discussion. Check out the Company ViewIndustry View and Physician View in the Superbug series. 

Since the publication of this article, UK has voted “Antibiotics” to be the challenge of the Longitude Prize 2014.  For next steps, please visit the Longitude Prize website

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