“There’s a big pot of gold at the end of this rainbow” – Norwich company Iceni Diagnostics in race for £10m global prize
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In the latest in our series on reigning EDP Business Awards winners, MARK SHIELDS reports on Iceni Diagnostics, the company looking to help cement Norwich and Norfolk's place on the global scientific map.
In recent months, the desk by the door of Prof David Russell and Prof Rob Field's office has become something of a makeshift trophy shelf.
Next to the award for Knowledge Catalyst at the EDP Business Awards, sponsored by the UEA, stands a memento marking their company out as a finalist in the university's own innovation awards, where Prof Russell was recognised with one of its first innovation fellowships.
But already the two scientists, the co-founders of Iceni Diagnostics, and their team are looking to the next prize – one which could have global ramifications.
The Longitude Prize was launched in 2014, when a £10m reward was put up for grabs for the scientists who could solve one of the great challenges facing the modern world.
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A public vote selected antibiotic resistance – with the prize going to whichever organisation could develop an accurate, rapid, affordable and easy-to-use diagnostic test to prevent antibiotics being used unnecessarily, and conserve them for future generations.
Prof Russell and Prof Field have experience with such tests, having developed a way of using carbohydrate detection to return quick and accurate diagnoses of viruses. Until now, they have been concentrating on norovirus and avian flu – which could prevent ward closures in hospitals, or large-scale bird culls on farms – but also see potential for tests for bacterial infections, such as meningitis or sepsis.
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Such a test would give doctors the ability to prescribe antibiotics only when they are needed and would be effective.
'We would like to be able to distinguish between viruses and bacteria, in a simple way that a GP can use,' said Prof Russell.
'The first products will be for viruses and they are important viruses. They are both worldwide problems. But the antimicrobial [test] is where we would like to go.'
That work remains around three years away, they say, but with a potential market of every GP on the planet, the potential is 'collossal'.
So are they contenders for the prize? As scientists, the pair measure their words carefully.
'It's been open for a couple of years and no one is close to getting there yet,' said Prof Russell. 'We are still in the running. But it is a race. Will we win? We don't know. But we're going to do our damnedest. And there's a big pot of gold at the end of this rainbow – and it really does exist.'
Competitors who have already shown their hand have come up short. The difficulty is making a test cheap enough for the developing world, which rules out many of the advanced technologies used in Western markets.
'They need a lot of training, and a large number of batch samples to keep costs down,' said Prof Field. 'Coming in without the usual baggage, you may have a chance you wouldn't if you were just taking incremental steps with existing technology.'
Packaging the test into a reliable and affordable device is the challenge, but one that Iceni has been working on with its avian flu and norovirus diagnostics.
The science they describe as 'the easy bit', but the harder task has been in bringing the product to market.
The EDP Business Award has opened doors. At around the same time, they were awarded a £60,000 agri-tech grant by the New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership, which has since grown into a £300,000 funding round to drive the next phase of the company's growth. Already nearly £250,000 has been raised, much of it from within Norfolk and Suffolk, and the company is confident of reaching its target next month.
The funding has paid for a £15,000 piece of machinery which can impregnate long sheets of paper with the reagent chemicals needed for the diagnostic tests. The paper is sliced into thin strips, each one going into in the plastic cartridge test which Iceni hopes will be instantly familiar to users as similar to a pregnancy test stick.
'That kit was essential to take the flu diagnosis work forward,' said Prof Field. 'It gave us the infrastructure to build the portfolio of products we have coming down the line.'
The company is discussing outsourcing manufacture of the devices, but hopes to be able to bring production back to Norfolk once it starts generating revenue.
Prof Field and Prof Russell are keen to remain in Norwich, and help establish the science cluster which is already building around its Norwich Research Park base.
'The ball is rolling,' said Prof Field. 'It would be great if there were another half a dozen companies like us operating in related space – and we're not quite at that position yet. But things are moving.'