Opinion: The Longitude Prize and antibiotic research funding

Posted on June 26, 2014   by Dr Peter Cotgreave, Chief Executive, Society for General Microbiology

Cash prizes have long been the drivers of scientific innovation, be it in the development of synthetic blue pigment in 19th century France, or the XPrize’s continuing efforts to award those developing “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity”.

NIAID on Flickr

This year, Nesta relaunched the Longitude Prize, first offered by the British Government in 1714 as a reward for solving a major problem of the day – determining a ship’s longitude. The original prize was won by the clockmaker John Harrison, who received around £15,000 for his efforts, which equates to over £1.8 million in today’s currency.

300 years later, the reborn 2014 Longitude Prize is even bigger – offering a fund of £10 million to those interested in solving the major problems that affect mankind today. The prize opened with a vote that allowed the public to decide which challenge they thought was most deserving. As Chief Executive of the Society for General Microbiology, I’m delighted to say that the winning challenge of the Longitude Prize 2014 is ‘Antibiotics’.

The prize’s website says the fund aims “to create a cost-effective, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time.”

This mirrors a call made in the Society for General Microbiology’s recent report Microbiology and the challenge of sexually transmitted infections, in which we state that the development of rapid point-of-care diagnostic devices will have a major impact in slowing the spread of antimicrobial-resistant bacterial infections, some of which – for example, gonorrhoea – threaten to become resistant to all available drugs and, ultimately, untreatable.

In 2009, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimated that infections caused by drug-resistant bacteria cause over 25,000 deaths in the EU and cost the region at least €1.5 billion a year. As a Society we welcome any funding that will help to save lives and slow the advance of antibiotic resistance. This prize should help highlight the need to use existing antibiotics wisely, strengthening our ability to fight infectious diseases. However, we also need to fund research into new classes of antimicrobials that work in different ways to those we already have and to look at how new technologies, such as synthetic biology, can be used to produce novel clinical compounds.

We’re yet to find out the application process for the Longitude Prize or who will be eligible. Microbiologists have been calling for funding into this area for a long time, and the subject has received significant media attention. In light of this, the UK Research Councils are beginning to offer funding opportunities, committing millions of pounds to science that will fight antimicrobial resistance.

The Research Councils have recently committed over £10 million to two schemes funding antimicrobial research. However, researchers looking to apply need to act quickly. The Medical Research Council (MRC), who lead the scheme, have given potential applicants until the 2 September 2014 to come up with outline proposals on the following themes:

  • Accelerating therapeutic and diagnostics development, aimed particularly at researchers not currently working in the infection field.
  • Understanding resistant bacteria in context of the host, which is to set the ‘foundations for world-class translational bacteriology’ in the UK.

Proposals will be judged in October 2014, and applicants will proceed through further rounds of selection, which is likely to include writing a full grant application, participating in a networking workshop, and being interviewed personally.

Don’t let these hoops put you off. I urge researchers interested in working on antimicrobial resistance to look at these funding streams – we’ve been calling for them for some time and they’re beginning to arrive. Hopefully these will be the first of many, as this subject is simply too important to ignore.

The Society continues to work with other funders and learned societies to reinforce government action on antimicrobial resistance through funding streams and events. We would like to build a sustainable, cross-disciplinary cohort of researchers to work with government and funders to tackle infectious disease.

Image: NIAID on Flickr