Innovation in rapid bacterial diagnostics wins international prize

Forskare i labbrockar i ett labb

Johan Elf and Özden Baltekin in the laboratory. The research group has long used microscopy and microfluidics to study bacteria. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

From three days to less than 45 minutes – a new rapid bacteria test radically improves the chances of treating bacterial infections with the right antibiotics. The innovation is now being rewarded with the Longitude Prize, worth GBP 8 million. The rapid test, developed by the company Sysmex Astrego, is based on research at Uppsala University.

portrait of Johan Elf and Özden Baltekin.

Johan Elf and Özden Baltekin. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

The Longitude Prize is a British innovation prize first offered in 1714 to anyone who could solve the problem of measuring longitude at sea. The prize was offered for a second time in 2014, this time for rapid detection of antimicrobial resistance – one of today’s great global health challenges. The winner is Sysmex Astrego, a company founded in 2017 as a spin-out from Uppsala University.

“This is fantastic recognition for this technology and it’s particularly pleasing that it’s such a good example of how basic research can lead to tangible benefits,” says Johan Elf, Professor of Physical Biology.

Refined tools

Elf’s research group has long used microscopy and microfluidics to study bacteria. The methods were developed further in 2015, when doctoral student Özden Baltekin set about studying growth variations between individual bacterial cells and the underlying molecular mechanisms.

“We had refined the tools and were discussing with Dan Andersson, Professor of Medical Bacteriology, how we might be able to use the technology in diagnostics. Dan mentioned the Longitude Prize and the importance of a rapid test became obvious. We immediately investigated how quickly we could determine whether the bacteria in the lab responded to antibiotic treatment and it took just a few minutes.”

Enterprise needed

It soon became apparent to the researchers that the test was quicker than had been thought biologically possible.

“We realised that an enterprise was needed to move forward to the next stage and make the test robust, user-friendly and inexpensive. Thanks to my industrial mentor Ove Öhman, we dared to go for this and recruited the team that together started the enterprise Astrego Diagnostics in 2017,” Elf recalls.

tecnical device

The urine sample is analysed using a disposable cartridge that contains different types of antibiotics. Photo Mikael Wallerstedt

In 2022 Astrego was bought by the Japanese company Sysmex, which has taken the development and production further. Since then, Elf has devoted himself to university research, but he was present at the award ceremony at the Science Museum in London on 12 June.

The first test, which is for urinary tract infection, radically changes the health care situation. After just 15 minutes, the test shows whether it is a bacterial infection and in less than 45 minutes, which type of antibiotics can be used. Earlier tests for antibiotic sensitivity have needed to be analysed at hospital labs with a waiting time of 2–3 days.

Speed crucial

The speed has been crucial for Sysmex Astrego now being rewarded with the Longitude Prize. One of the prize committee’s criteria was that medical staff should be able to perform the test before prescribing antibiotics for the first time.

“The unique factor is that the test can be done at a primary care clinic, so that the right antibiotics will already be chosen at the first meeting with a doctor or nurse. Using the test therefore makes it possible to reintroduce antibiotics that have been abandoned because of a high level of resistance in the population but are still effective, provided you can find out which patients do not have resistant bacteria,” Elf explains.

The prize-winning instrument will be exhibited in the museum along with John Harrison’s chronometer, which won the first Longitude Prize in the 18th century, and Alexander Fleming’s penicillin mould from 1928.

Annica Hulth

The Longitude Prize

The Longitude Prize is a challenge-based prize. It was first offered in 1714 to anyone who could solve the problem of measuring longitude at sea, which was an important issue for British shipping. The prize was awarded to John Harrison for his chronometer, which was able to determine the exact location of a ship relative to the celestial bodies. Three hundred years later, in 2014, the prize was offered again in antimicrobial resistance. The whole prize of GBP 8 million is being awarded in 2024 to Sysmex Astrego for its rapid test of bacterial infections.

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