Paralysis, dementia and antibiotics are on the shortlist of issues that could reap a £10m research windfall. Helen Goulden urges you to cast your vote for the Longitude Prize 2014
The British public is being asked to cast the deciding vote to choose which issue the Longitude Prize 2014, which has a fund of £10m to help solve one the great scientific issues of our time, will go to.
Three of the six challenge areas have implications for medicine and healthcare, from dementia to antimicrobial resistance and paralysis. The challenges represent some of the biggest problems globally and reflect the importance of medical research and innovation in securing the future for everyone.
‘It is estimated that 135m people worldwide will have dementia by 2050. It places a burden not just on the healthcare system’
The prize has been developed and run by UK innovation foundation Nesta. Launched last year by the prime minister at the G8 summit, and through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, it is being supported by the Technology Strategy Board, the UK’s innovation agency, which is launch funding partner.
Nesta and the Longitude committee spent two years consulting with over 100 experts and the public through focus groups.
Now, the committee have selected six challenges that are being put to a public vote. The committee is chaired by Lord Martin Rees and also includes chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies, Wired editor David Rowan and Roger Highfield, director of external affairs at the Science Museum
Voting closes on 25 June and the winning topic will be the focus of the Longitude Prize 2014. Below are the three challenges that relate to healthcare.
It is estimated that 135 million people worldwide will have dementia by 2050. It places a burden not just on the healthcare system, but also on individuals, families and networks of care.
At the launch of the prize in May, we met Linda the robot from Lincoln University; she is one of six specialist mobile robots that are able to operate independently and support staff in care homes.
‘We want to encourage innovation to create a system of technologies that support people with dementia to live independently in their own homes’
Although Linda is still cast in the mould of what we expected robots to look like in the 1970s, she showed us how people are exploring the use of assistive devices to address specific needs like dementia.
However, this exploration is still in the early stages of development. If dementia is chosen by the public, we want to encourage innovation to create an integrated home system of ambient technologies that support people with dementia to live independently in their own homes for longer.
In the UK, one person is paralysed every eight hours. Rehabilitation can be a life’s work and there is no effective treatment to restore the function of the nervous system.
Brain controlled interfaces, nerve stimulation technologies, assistive technologies and soft robotics all have the potential to restore the ability to conduct everyday activities.
They also have the potential to address many secondary symptoms of paralysis such as sexual function, bowel function or associated pain.
Many of these technologies, however, still need development and are currently too intrusive.
‘Our ambition is that the Longitude Prize will accelerate a solution to fully solve one of these challenges’
REX Bionics is pioneering the use of robotics to enable paralysed people to walk again. It was incredible to see Sophie Morgan, who was paralysed from the chest down from the age of 18, using a REX exoskeleton to walk again at the prize launch (see video, below).
Exoskeletons have many merits and the work REX is doing should be applauded. But these suits are expensive, bulky and while life changing for the wearer, they are not streamlined enough to use every day.
If paralysis is selected as the focus of the prize, we want to see ideas that could restore movement to individuals with any form of paralysis, as well as addressing the secondary symptoms.
Another of our challenge areas focuses on antibiotics. Twenty-five thousand people die in Europe every year of sepsis caused by resistant bacteria; this is comparable with numbers of fatalities in road traffic accidents.
In the 80 years since the discovery of penicillin, our overuse of antibiotics has led to the emergence of untreatable, multidrug resistant strains of bacteria. Without post-operative use of antibiotics, the advances seen in surgery and cancer treatment, for example, would be lost.
With the support of Dame Sally, the government is placing antimicrobial resistance on long term register the National Security Risk Assessment.
‘For the first time, antimicrobial resistance topped the agenda at the G8 meeting of science ministers’
For the first time, antimicrobial resistance topped the agenda at the G8 meeting of science ministers last year. Antibiotics underpin all modern healthcare, and in this challenge area we ask for competitors to develop a cheap and rapid point of care test that can enable practitioners to accurately diagnose a bacterial infection.
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. And three other non-medical challenge areas are also available to vote on including water, food and flight.
Our ambition is that the Longitude Prize, whichever the focus, will accelerate a solution to fully solve one of these challenges.
Helen Goulden is executive director of the innovation lab at Nesta