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£3.8million for collaboration developing revolutionary infectious disease early warning systems

i-sense, a research collaboration supported by our BRC, has been awarded a further £3.8 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to continue its groundbreaking work developing early warning sensing systems for infectious diseases. 

i-sense is an EPSRC funded interdisciplinary research collaboration (IRC) on the cusp of revolutionising the way we track, test and treat infectious disease globally. Professor of Biomedical Nanotechnology at UCL and i-sense Director Professor Rachel McKendry, said: “Since i-sense received its original £11 million in funding from EPSRC in October 2013, we have been working to help people gain faster access to care and protect populations.”

With recent outbreaks of Ebola and Zika viruses exposing the world’s vulnerability to emerging infectious diseases and the urgent need for early warning systems, the i-sense team has made significant progress in developing deep learning models of Google data for national influenza syndromic surveillance and mobile phone-connected tests to diagnose infections, including HIV and Ebola in low resource settings.

Future work includes developing ways to harness deep learning of millions of symptoms reported online every day to identify outbreaks, potentially before people visit their doctors and in resource-limited settings, as well as to evaluate the effectiveness of public health interventions and responses.

i-sense will continue to engineer a new generation of mobile phone-connected diagnostic tools using advanced nanomaterials that are adaptable to different diseases, antimicrobial resistant strains and different environments.

The paper-based microfluidic tests are similar to pregnancy tests and the app that i-sense is developing is designed to capture and interpret these tests and support linkage to treatment and care. This new diagnostic platform will help widen access to testing in the home, including self-tests, and devices to support front-line health workers in care homes as well as in remote locations across Africa.

Management of outbreaks will benefit from development of state-of-the-art visualisation tools that map ‘hot spots’ and target opportunities for interventions. This work will build on the recently developed Treatment as Prevention (TasP) trial dashboard that successfully combined mHealth, genomic, clinical and epidemiological datasets to track the progress of an HIV testing and treatment intervention trial in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.

Professor Deenan Pillay, Director of the Africa Health Research Institute and i-sense Deputy Director, said: “Our future vision will be to build population test-beds in the UK and South Africa to pilot new technologies that will be ready for clinical trials, translation and product development.”

Professor Molly Stevens, Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine at Imperial College London and i-sense IRC Next Steps Deputy Director, said “i-sense brings together a unique consortium with the right interdisciplinary skill sets to make a real difference in engineering innovation and human impact. We look forward to building on our nanoparticle-based work and testing it at the point-of-care for early disease diagnosis.”

This latest funding award is part of a larger £11 million boost to EPSRC’s three IRCs and is the largest funding awarded to any interdisciplinary research collaboration .

Professor McKendry said: “Follow on funding will maximise the impact of the current i-sense IRC, retaining key staff and delivering a step change in new capabilities to respond to emerging infections.”

i-sense has leveraged an additional £10 million, including new laboratory infrastructure, academic positions and funding from Public Health England, the Africa Health Research institute, UCL Partners, academic partners and industry.

Professor McKendry added: “i-sense is also regularly engaging with Public Health England, clinicians, industry, patients, policy makers and the public to understand end-user needs and ensure our tools and technologies are valuable.”