Contest aims to solve one of the world’s great medical dilemmas
The big problem for worldwide logistics in the early modern period was calculating longitude at sea. Sailors could figure out latitude by the position of the sun. Longitude, however, moves with the Earth, so calculating it as you were in a ship also traveling across the surface of the planet proved an enormous challenge. Captains were pretty much guessing most of the time, and between the mid-16th and mid-17th centuries, about 20% of ships became lost at sea.
In 1714, the Merchants and Seamen Petition asked the British Parliament for help. Parliament passed the Longitude Act, which established a board to solicit pitches from anyone offering a solution. The board offered up to £20,000 (more than $4 million in 2022 money) to anyone who could solve the problem with an error of half a degree or less. John Harrison, a clockmaker, figured out how to make what became known as a marine chronometer, which could keep time without the use of lubricants, which would degrade in hot weather. Harrison never got the full grand prize payout (no one ever did), but he did receive the most Longitude rewards in the 114-year history of the board. In that time, the British came to dominate the seas. The problem was officially considered solved by 1828, and the Board of Longitude dissolved, making way for a scientific advisory committee. In that spirit, the UK announced a new Longitude Prize in 2012, with a public vote determining the challenge to be solved.
Nesta Challenges and Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, selected the six great challenges of our time and unveiled them in 2014.
- Flight– How can we fly without damaging the environment?
- Food– How can we ensure everyone has nutritious sustainable food?
- Antibiotics– How can we prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics?
- Paralysis– How can we restore movement to those with paralysis?
- Water– How can we ensure everyone can have access to safe and clean water?
- Dementia– How can we help people with dementia to live independently for longer?
Antibiotics resistance won the vote, with Jamie Reed, then the Shadow Minister for Health saying, “The scale of the challenge that antimicrobial resistance presents is beyond any doubt and new innovative thinking is essential.”
The grand £8 million ($10 million) Longitude Prize will go to “a team of innovators from anywhere in the world to invent an affordable, accurate, fast and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time.” There is a total of £10 million ($12.5 million) up for grabs.
Bacteria mutate quickly, and often medical professionals give patients generic antibiotics because they have to make quick decisions with incomplete information about what kind of infection a patient has. This inadvertently helps bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics, which can lead to them evolving into superbugs. While antibiotics have saved millions, if not billions, of lives in the last century (the World Health Organization estimates antibiotics add an average of 20 years to our lives), resistant bacteria could wipe out that progress.
Pursuit of the Prize
As with the original Longitude Prize, no one has claimed the big purse yet, but there has been significant progress toward development of a test for bacterial infections. In 2016 and 2017, Nesta and the committee gave Discovery Awards funding of between £10,000-25,000 to 29 organizations from the UK, US, Belgium, the Netherlands, India, Australia, and Israel working on a solution.
“We’re really trying to come up with a test that would work internationally so even in places where there’s not a lot of medical access or infrastructure,” Nesta’s Daniel Berman told Wired in 2017. “These teams are trying to develop something that could be used in a pharmacy or maybe even by patients themselves like you would a pregnancy test.”
Most of the award recipients are from India, where bacterial infections are a major killer, and the Government of India-funded Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council helps fund the Longitude Prize.
“Drug-resistant bacteria are a serious threat to millions of people in India and around the world. Indian startups can be part of a global solution,” BIRAC managing director Dr. Renu Swarup said.
Among the contenders are Indian startup Module Innovations, which is working on a test that would take between 30-60 minutes to detect bacteria causing urinary tract infections. Current tests take two days to return results.
Australia’s Going Against the Flow tests for the blood infection sepsis, trying to see if targeting the body’s response to bacterial infections rather than the bacteria themselves speeds things up.
“Today, doctors really struggle because they know that sepsis can be deadly if it’s not treated, they want to treat it as quickly as possible but on the other hand there are no quick tests to tell whether the person is actually suffering from a blood infection or not,” Berman told Wired.
The next submission deadline is Sept. 30, and if no submission achieves the goal of getting results from a bacterial test in 30 minutes or less, the Longitude Prize committee will expand the criteria to 60 minutes or less.
“As we emerge from the worst of the pandemic, I am calling on diagnostic test innovators to apply the enormous advances they have made in tackling COVID-19 to the threat of antibiotic resistance to stave off the scenario of a world without effective antibiotic treatments,” Longitude Prize committee member Sir Patrick Vallance said.
Considering a winning submission could save an estimated 10 million lives annually by 2050, it will be money well spent.