Results from our first submission round

15 Sep 2015
Written by
Professor Baron Peter Piot

On the 31st of May the first application deadline for the £10m Longitude Prize closed.

Inspired by and named after the Longitude Act of 1714 that sought, and found, a method to measure a ship’s location at sea, the Longitude Prize was launched last year on BBC Horizon’s 50th anniversary episode.  It is being delivered by Nesta, and supported by Innovate UK as funding partner. The public got the chance to select which great global problem they would like to see tackled using a £10m challenge prize. The public chose antimicrobial resistance, and inventors and innovators from around the world were given 5 years to compete to find new rapid and affordable ways to diagnose infectious diseases, so that we only use the right course of antibiotics at the right time. 

In May, eight teams from the UK, the US and Finland put forward their ideas and although they were bold, innovative and, in the most part, useful, none met the extremely difficult criteria we set to win the Prize.

The promise from these applications, and the 100 or so registered competitors from every continent, make me optimistic we’ll find a winner before the ultimate application deadline in just over four years. We all recognise this is a hard challenge, which teams need some time to address. 

A winning diagnostic is so important for communities all over the world.  Drug-resistant infections continue to emerge and they are an immediate threat to the underpinnings of modern medicine, making many areas of surgery and some chemotherapy for cancer very risky. The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, chaired by economist Jim O’Neill and supported by the Wellcome Trust, estimates that drug-resistant infections could kill an additional 10 million people per year, globally, by 2050 and could also cost the world around $100 trillion in lost output. Already over 25,000 people die each year in Europe (1) because of drug-resistant infections, and this could soon spill over into everyday medical problems that can only be treated with antibiotics, like urinary tract infections and as part of hip replacement recovery treatments. We need a solution now.

One part of this solution is to make sure we only use antibiotics when they are required, and that we use a targeted therapy, rather than the broad-spectrum antibiotic approach commonly used in hospitals and clinics globally. To win the Longitude Prize teams must develop a test that enables us to confidently make targeted antibiotic treatment decisions. But the test must also be accessible to everyone who needs it. It must be affordable, not just in countries where there are high levels of spend on health, but also in poorer parts of the world, where resistance is growing fastest. It must be easy to use, simple enough for those with minimal training to administer correctly, resilient enough to withstand temperature fluctuations, and small enough to carry.

This is the area where the first round of applications fell short.

The range of applications we received was diverse, as we had hoped. Some applications used the identification of different ‘biomarkers’ - naturally occurring characteristics - to detect when an infection requiring antibiotic treatment was present. However, some could not provide a result to the patient within 30 minutes. Other teams proposed completely novel technologies, but their ideas were not sufficiently advanced to validate the test’s performance.

It is likely that the winning test will draw upon some or all of the technologies put forward in this round of applications, but until these technologies can be adapted so that they are resilient to the demands of the real world, and can be produced at a cost low enough for everyone who needs it, the race will continue. Indeed, none of the applications we’ve seen so far could be classed as both affordable and easy-to-use.

We expected to receive a small number of applications in the first year of the Prize. We didn’t set the winning criteria to reward technology that is already available. The applications we saw, although good, were not yet good enough to make the global impact we hope for. The criteria was set to reward only those that can make a leap forward in diagnostic capability; to reward those that can bring together cutting-edge innovations in microfluidics, genomics, novel chemistries and design; in short, to reward the creation of new tests that we desperately need.

With this level of challenge we need to encourage innovators and teams from all disciplines to come forward, to form new collaborations and approach the problem from new perspectives, as well as existing ones. The range of organisations behind the first applications was diverse, much as we hoped, with entrants coming from large established companies, universities, start-ups and also some individuals working on their own. We saw the start of global collaboration and cross discipline approaches, and one team came together specifically to take part in the Prize. 

Our first applicants have received feedback and have been encouraged to incorporate and re-apply. Our next deadline for submissions is the 30th of September, and I’m very excited to see what ideas we receive this time.


1. (EDCD/EMEA Joint Technical Report. The bacterial challenge: time to react. 2009 EMEA/576176/2009)