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Breath Biopsy platform scoops UK award for engineering innovation

28 June 2018

The Royal Academy of Engineering reveals Owlstone Medical, creators of the ReCIVA Breath Sampler, as the winners of the 2018 MacRobert Award.

The team behind a unique Breath Biopsy platform that has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives and $1.5 billion in healthcare costs globally. Owlstone Medical’s ReCIVA Breath Sampler has opened up the potential for earlier diagnosis and precision medicine across cancer, inflammatory disease and infectious disease. 

Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, as Royal Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, presented the team of engineers from Cambridge-based company Owlstone Medical with the MacRobert Award gold medal and a £50,000 prize at the Academy’s Awards Dinner at the Tower of London last night. 

The winning team members are: Billy Boyle, Co-founder & CEO; David Ruiz-Alonso, Co-founder & COO; Max Allsworth, Chief Scientific Officer; Alastair Taylor, VP of Engineering; Matthew Hart, VP of Research and Development. 

Owlstone Medical has created the first platform capable of capturing breath samples and analysing them in a robust and reproducible way. These samples can be used to identify the unique chemical ‘biomarkers’ of a variety of diseases, also known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), in human breath. As VOC levels change at the very earliest stages of disease and provide information on the current activity of cells and tissue, the breath samples could lead to earlier diagnosis of diseases such as cancer when treatments are more effective and more lives can be saved. Breath biomarkers also have the potential to revolutionise the way medicine is prescribed, as they could be used to monitor drug effectiveness and match patients to the correct treatment, and cut healthcare costs by lowering drug wastage.

The ReCIVA Breath Sampler, inspired by discussions with more than 100 experts from design engineers to clinicians, is used to capture the samples in a non-invasive way, and these are then analysed through the company’s Breath Biopsy platform. The platform uses Owlstone’s microchip chemical sensor technology (FAIMS) to detect specific disease biomarkers with a high level of sensitivity. Developing a standardised method to collect and analyse breath biopsies means that Owlstone can build a robust, comparable Breath Biopsy Digital Biobank including thousands of breath VOC profiles matched to phenotype and overcome many of the historical challenges associated with the identification of VOCs and how these are associated with specific diseases.

Owlstone Medical is developing tests to diagnose lung and colorectal cancer, two of the most common cancer killers worldwide and is currently undertaking clinical trials with the NHS and Cancer Research. The company also supplies Breath Biopsy products and services to academic, clinical and pharma partners who want to develop breath based diagnostics for their own applications. GlaxoSmithKline recently chose to integrate the Breath Biopsy platform into the clinical development programme for one of the new drugs it is developing for respiratory disease, to assess whether it is possible to identify the right patient for the right treatment.

The Owlstone Medical team were up against Oxford Space Systems for their new generation of origami-inspired, innovative and cost-competitive satellite antennas and structures, and Williams Advanced Engineering and Aerofoil Energy for Aerofoils, an aerodynamic shelf-edge technology that significantly reduces energy consumption in supermarket and convenience store fridges.

The MacRobert Award, run by the Royal Academy of Engineering, is the UK’s longest running and most prestigious award for engineering innovation. First presented in 1969, the Award has recognised the extraordinary potential of innovations that have changed the world we live in. In 1972, for instance, the judges honoured the development of the first CT scanner by EMI – seven years before its inventor Sir Godfrey Hounsfield received the Nobel Prize. Last year’s winner was the Cambridge-based team behind the Raspberry Pi.

The Award honours the winning organisation with a gold medal, and the team members a cash prize of £50,000. The presentation of the Award recognises outstanding innovation, tangible societal benefit and proven commercial success.

Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS, Chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “All three finalists showed outstanding innovation, and I am sure they will change the way we live, and how businesses operate, for years to come – whether that be by enhancing the space sector, helping companies slash energy consumption, or by improving healthcare.

“Owlstone Medical stood out because of the extraordinary engineering its breath sampler, and the associated breath biopsy platform, required to bring these technologies to life. The company has demonstrated exceptional innovation at every stage of development; from the mask used to help capture breath, the tubes that help collect the samples, to the software and hardware designed to ensure the tests are reliable and repeatable. 

“Owlstone Medical has now created a device that is dependable and non-intrusive, and has the potential to revolutionise the way we diagnose and treat a vast array of diseases. The societal benefit is clear to see, and I believe they could realise their vision of saving more than a billion dollars in global healthcare costs and saving hundreds of thousands of lives.”


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