Owlstone breath sampling biopsy system scoops UK’s biggest engineering award

Technology that uses breath samples to enable early detection of diseases such as cancer has won the Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2018 MacRobert Award.

breath sampling biopsy

Developed by Cambridge firm Owlstone Medical, the ReCIVA breath sampler analyses human breath samples for the unique chemical ‘biomarkers’ of a variety of diseases.  The levels of these so-called Volatile Organic Compounds change at the very earliest stages of disease, meaning that the method could lead to earlier diagnosis of diseases such as cancer.

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.

According to Owlstone the technology has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives and $1.5 billion in healthcare costs globally.

Inspired by discussions with more than 100 experts from design engineers to clinicians, the technology 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.

The company 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.

It also supplies Breath Biopsy products and services to academic, clinical and pharma partners who want to develop breath-based diagnostics for their own applications. These partners include GlaxoSmithKline, which 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.

The team was presented with the award, along with £50,000, by Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal, at the Academy’s Awards Dinner at the Tower of London last night (27th June).

ReCIVA was up against Oxford Space Systems for its new generation of origami-inspired satellite antennas and structures, and Williams Advanced Engineering and Aerofoil Energy for aerodynamic shelf-edge technology that significantly reduces energy consumption in supermarket fridges.

Commenting on the winning entry, Dr Dame Sue Ion DBE FREng FRS, Chair of the MacRobert Award judging panel, said: “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.”

Billy Boyle, co-founder and CEO at Owlstone Medical, commented: “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.”