L-R: Bruce Savage CEO of GFC Diagnostics, Graham Cope, technical director, Graham Mock, DNA specialist and Alex Savage, scientist

L-R: Bruce Savage CEO of GFC Diagnostics, Graham Cope, technical director, Graham Mock, DNA specialist and Alex Savage, scientist

In the battle to beat superbugs

Medical devices developed by two researchers from the University of Birmingham are on show at the Science Museum’s ‘Superbugs: The Fight For Our Lives’ exhibition.

Digital health is big money … at least for those who make scientific breakthroughs that can be commercialised for patients across the globe, and both Linear Diagnostics and GFC Diagnostics are in the race to win. They’re competing, with other ventures from across the UK, for the Longitude Prize – a £10m fund to reward developers of cheap, accurate, rapid and easy-to-use point of care test kits for bacterial infections, so health professionals can administer the right antibiotics – at the right time.

The aim is to dramatically reduce over-use of anti-biotics, which has spawned a generation of global superbugs immune to modern medicine.

The Science Museum exhibition runs until November 2019, each entry is assessed every four months, and the first team to satisfy the judges’ criteria will take the prize.

Linear Diagnostics’ device uses polarised light to measure the alignment of “detector molecules”, to check that the antibiotic prescribed is not one to which the targeted bacteria is resistant. GFC’s Microscreen technology enables antibiotic resistance genes to be immediately detected by a colour change at the time of testing.

Linear Diagnostics’ chief technology officer, Matt Hicks, and Graham Cope, founder of GFC Diagnostics, tell their stories in their own words.

Hicks:
“Our prototype device is in the Science Museum, and we will be trialling it during 2018 in hospitals and GP surgeries as a detector for anti-microbial resistant urinary tract infections (UTIs).

“It might surprise those outside our sector, but there are two million cases of UTI in the UK each year, and the worldwide figure is thought to be around 150m.

“An ongoing challenge for an small and medium-sized enterprise such as ourselves is ensuring we have sufficient funding to continue our development work.

“During 2017, we were awarded £150,000 from the Rainbow Seed Fund, a venture capital fund set up to support early-stage technology companies, and that was matched by funding from the UoB which was a real help.

“We also applied for an Innovate UK grant – for SMEs in hi-tech niches across all sectors. Previously, they awarded 70% of a project’s costs, but they realised even the 30% could be a lot for an SME, so they set up an Investor Accelerator Award outside the normal application process, which is a novel idea.

“A panel of six investor partners assess your application separately and decide if you should get the 30% from them, and applicants can choose a preferred investor, if you’ve won support from Innovate.

“One of those six was Rainbow, which obviously liked what we were doing and had already gone through the due diligence process on us, and we got another £105,000 from Innovate UK and £45,000 from Rainbow.

“Thanks to this funding, which is due to last seven months from the start of 2018, we are able to expand our research into tests for UTIs, and for tests to detect resistance to anti-biotics more widely.

Superbugs ©The  Science Museum“We work with clinical advisers to develop the tests, notably Abid Hussein, who is head of infection prevention and control at Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust. He has the medical knowledge to help us, and also a broader overview of the healthcare system and the way hospitals work.

“Equally, its crucial for growing SMEs to strengthen their management team, and we took on an executive chairman, Brendan Farrell, last summer. He has spent more than 30 years in the diagnostics sector, more than 20 of which were at board level, and has tremendous international experience and contacts.

“Brendan is now working with me to look at overall strategy for the long-term, beyond the current work for UIT tests, and at other tests we could potentially put on our platform.

“He’s also looking at further fund-raising, putting together a new business plan, and looking at potential distribution partners for when our products are ready.

“Its all about identifying the different challenges which we’ll face at different stages of our expansion, and putting solutions in place to address them before they might impact our business.”

Cope:
“We’ve been given £10,000 from the Longitude Fund to further develop our technique, which was excellent news. Most awards have gone to academics using complex and expensive systems and processes, which is puzzling as the brief is to identify simple ways of deciding if patients need anti-viral or anti-biotic treatment.

“The Superbug exhibition will run for 18 months, and the museum expect around three million people to visit. One of the central aims is to educate the public about the difference between bacteria and viruses, which contrary to what many people think, are not the same thing.

“I’m a medical scientist, who has specialised in smoking, the mechanisms behind it, and diseases related to it for more than 30 years.

“My first major project was when the Department of Health (DoH) wanted a simple and effective way of intervening to reduce smoking during pregnancy.

“My idea was to measure the amount of tobacco present in each woman, rather than simply telling them smoking was dangerous and that they should stop, and to engage with them, so they could see evidence of their smoking.

“The DoH was working on a colour test to detect cotenine, which was the gold standard for measuring tobacco intake, but tests took several days because the samples had to be sent to a lab.

“I developed a point-of-care test, done next to the patient, so results were available immediately and solutions could be discussed with the individual.

“SafeTube was developed and the design hasn’t changed a great deal. A simple way of collecting urine, with chemicals inside, and the cotenine turns pink – deeper with the level of smoking.

“Some women would say they only smoked three or four a day, but their sample would be dark pink, others would say they smoked too much, yet theirs would be pale pink, which revealed the psychology of smoking.

“We then developed SmokeScreen, which also tests for smoking levels, but using saliva, and later a test to monitor if patients are taking drugs to tackle tuberculosis (TB), called IsoScreen.

“TB was considered a forgotten disease, but 95% of current cases in the UK come from its latent form. Typically, patients come from Asia, live in poor conditions with a poor diet, and their disease emerges, so the hot-spots are in London, Birmingham and other areas of high immigration.

“Like the pregnant women who smoked, some patients are risk-takers and stop taking their drugs during the nine month programme, and IsoScreen takes just minutes to test their adherence to the treatment.

“In the last year, we’ve focused on a quick and effective way of detecting MRSA (once known as the ‘superbug’) in hospitals.  The R&D has gone well, and we now have clinical trials lined up at Southampton General Hospital.

“Looking ahead, we’re trying to develop other tests for anti-biotic resistant strains, especially for bacteria which live in urinary-genetic tracts, notably CPE, which is resistant to all anti-biotics.”