MacRobert Award 2018 winner: Owlstone Medical


One of the things about lung cancer is that those with early stage disease often don’t have much in the way of symptoms. Patients who present with symptoms, which is around 75% of the people we see the five-year survival will be at best around 5% and often less. What we really need to do is get out among the high-risk populations of people and potentially screen them in some sort of way to try and pick up early stage lung cancers. Owlstone Medical was selected as a MacRobert finalist because of the extensive engineering innovation applied to the ReCIVA ® breath sampler. The reason we created the breath sampler was really to try and enable breath diagnostics as a completely new diagnostic category. The analysis of breath as a marker for disease has been known about since the early 1970s the difficulty was in providing accurate breath samples Owlstone’s innovations give the potential to revolutionize the way medicines are given for diseases like asthma and COPD they also give the potential for early detection of lung cancer. Many of the competing technologies for breath sampling involve sampling with a bag, these bags can leak or contaminate the sample during storage or transport and that can compromise the quality of the analysis. The specific new technologies developed by Owlstone Medical for the breath sampler are the combination of the sensors the pumps and the collection mechanism itself. We’ve built a much more controlled way of collecting the breath on to the tubes for a central lab analysis. As the patient is breathing, they have these thousands of chemicals and what the device does is it watches the breath profile and allows them to select a specific breath fraction. Then once the compounds go into these tubes here, they are absorbed and are completely stable so the sample then comes back to our breath biopsy lab. We have collected everything then we can analyse absolutely everything as well. We know in cancer early detection is what will save lives, but alot of the tests today, they’re not very pleasant and that means people just don’t show up for the tests. So first and foremost you need to have tests that are acceptable to the patients so if you don’t like getting your blood drawn, it doesn’t get better than breath. The ReCIVA device is being used in over 100 sites and it’s also part of the world’s largest global trial for the detection of lung cancer. The LuCID trial is collecting up to 4000 patients from multiple centres across England and continental Europe presenting with symptoms suspicious for lung cancer. If this technology proves what we hope it will, it may be that, a bit like a blood test at the moment, you collect the sample you send it off and the GP gets a result back within 24-48 hours. The impact of winning the award would be a great honour for the team. And it’ll be some recognition for everyone who put lots of work over last 3 years into developing this hardware. We’ve grown incredibly quickly, we now have 130 people across all science and engineering disciplines. We are only really getting started, the company mission is to try and save 100,000 lives and we won’t stop until we have achieved that.

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