Owlstone Medical, MacRobert Award winners 2018

Breath-sampling healthcare innovation wins 2018 MacRobert Award

Image credit: Royal Academy of Engineering

Owlstone Medical's ReCIVA breath-sampling biopsy platform has won the Royal Academy of Engineering's MacRobert Award, the UK's most prestigious award for engineering innovation.

Owlstone Medical’s ‘Breath Biopsy’ platform has opened up the potential for earlier diagnosis and precision medicine across cancer, inflammatory disease and infectious disease, offering the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives and $1.5bn in healthcare costs globally.

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

The winning team members from Owlstone Medical (pictured above) are: Billy Boyle, co-founder and CEO; David Ruiz-Alonso, co-founder and COO; Max Allsworth, chief scientific officer; Alastair Taylor, VP of engineering and Matthew Hart, VP of R&D.

In ReCIVA, 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, cutting 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.

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.”

Billy Boyle, co-founder and CEO at Owlstone Medical, said: “It’s a huge honour to have won the MacRobert Award and for the whole team to be recognised for their hard work over the last three years in developing the Breath Biopsy platform and establishing breath diagnostics as a new industry category. We know that in cancer, early detection is our greatest opportunity to save lives - our company mission is to save 100,000 lives and we won't stop until we achieve this.”

The MacRobert Award was first presented in 1969 and is the UK’s longest-running and most prestigious national prize for engineering innovation. Past winners have included the engineers behind innovations such as the Pegasus jet engine, catalytic converters, the roof of the Millennium Dome and intelligent prosthetic limbs. In 2017, the Award was won by the team behind the Raspberry Pi microcomputer.

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