29 June 2014
The theme of the high-profile Longitude Prize is to be the challenge of antibiotic resistance.
The new prize was established as a modern equivalent to the original 1714 version to solve the leading scientific challenge of the time, how to identify a ship’s location based only on the longitude, with a prize fund of £20,000. It was eventually won by John Harrison with his invention the chronometer.
300 years later, the UK government-funded Technology Strategy Board and the innovation charity Nesta have together offered a £10 million prize to encourage innovation in pursuit of the leading scientific challenge of the twenty-first century. However, the question has been, what is the greatest challenge? Six categories were presented for the public to vote on, including how to restore movement to people with paralysis and how to help people with dementia to live independently for longer.
The winning theme, how to prevent the rise of resistance to antibiotics, is one dear to the heart of England’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Prof Dame Sally Davies, who last year publicly likened it to a “ticking time-bomb” and warned that routine operations could become deadly due to untreatable infections in as little as 20 years. Similarly the World Health Organization has warned that "many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, could kill unabated".
Developments in viral and bacterial genomic analysis are moving rapidly and could potentially lead to a winning entry, if considered sufficiently innovative. Speaking about the Longitude prize, the CMO observed that something like a new, rapid diagnostic test could be a winner by helping to “conserve the antibiotics we have and thus ensure they remain effective for as long as possible". Traditional diagnostic methods require culturing and growth of the infectious agents from patient samples before they can be identified, whereas genome sequencing is increasingly rapid and allows more precise diagnosis.
A new class of antibiotic would also be a likely winner; no new types of antibiotic have been discovered since the 1980s, and although they remain badly needed to combat multi-drug resistant bacteria, the incentives for research in this area are limited. This is partly due to the poor track record of research failures over the last 30-40 years, and also because any new class of antibiotic would be liable to stringent rationing within health systems to protect against the emergence of bacterial resistance, keeping it only for deadly infections where all other treatments have failed.
The Longitude Committee will now refine the terms of the challenge, in order to ensure that it will be clear if and when they are met. Committee chair Lord Martin Rees said he hoped the prize would stimulate invention and innovation, especially 'out of the box' thinking, to tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance.