Today, 1.3 million people die each year because of antimicrobial resistance, a figure that could increase to 10 million by 2050 — Strathclyde’s Microplate Dx hopes to prevent that.
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) diseases occur when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites adapt over time, meaning they no longer respond to modern-day medications. A 2019 report by University of Oxford found the proportion of deaths due to AMR was highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, closely followed by Asia, while globally antimicrobial resistance accounted for 1.27 million deaths that year.
This silent pandemic isn’t isolated to underdeveloped nations: infections caused by the Strep A bacteria over recent weeks in countries like the UK, Ireland or Australia have been fatal for dozens of patients, including many children. Australian researchers, at the end of November, identified a superbug strain of the bacteria that’s both undetectable using current methods and immune to several antibiotics. And amid guidance for doctors to lower the threshold for prescribing antibiotics, pharmacists have reported shortages in penicillin and amoxicillin. Additionally, the Antimicrobial Resistance Centre claims that the Covid-19 pandemic may have accelerated AMR’s development with more antibiotics administered to treat long covid symptoms such as chest infections.
The emergence of AMR boils down to a range of factors — antibiotic overuse and misuse, globalisation and travel, and genetic changes naturally occurring in the microbes themselves.
Enter Microplate Dx, a UK-based spinout of University of Strathclyde incorporated two years ago that seeks to personalise antibiotic prescribing through its rapid assessment platform. The platform provides bedside antibiotic prescriptions that target the specific microbe within minutes, ensuring optimum treatment and AMR diseases are repressed.
“Microplate Dx specialises in developing in vitro diagnostic tests to tackle AMR through rapid diagnostic sensors that can be positioned close to the patient’s bedside or point of care,” says Microplate Dx chief executive and co-founder Stuart Hannah, who was previously a knowledge exchange fellow and research associate at the university.
“Through this, we can gather results within an hour compared to the gold standard technologies that currently take place, where it can take up to two days or more to get targeted treatment. This will tackle AMR and the issue of antibiotic overuse and misuse whilst providing patients with better treatment outcomes and reducing hospitalisations and rising sepsis cases.”
Poonam Malik, co-founder and chairwoman of Microplate Dx, adds: “Our technology provides a solution to the patient’s needs as well as being an assistant for clinicians. It halts the use of what we call ‘best guess’ antibiotics at an early stage, further allowing effective treatment and supporting healthcare practitioners with busy schedules.”
She adds, “Our team is an excellent combination of academic, clinical, technical, and scientific knowledge providing ground-breaking innovation for the technology of the future. We initially have focused on urinary tract infection-resistant treatment operations and hope to broaden towards other AMR diseases.”
In addition to Microplate Dx, Malik continues to be employed by the university, where she serves as head of investments, managing multiple portfolio companies and seeking to fund new spinout opportunities. She previously joined the Talking Tech Transfer to talk more about these aspects and her earlier career.
The global fight against AMR
Tackling AMR has become a global initiative with universities at the forefront. In 2014, the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) launched its Bridging the Gap project asking engineering and physical sciences researchers to submit proposals for how to fight AMR. Over two years, 11 institutions shared $5.9m of funding.
And there are other spinouts active in this field, such as TaBriX, spun out of University of Manchester, that seeks to develop novel anti-virulence drugs to fight tuberculosis.
“Since the widespread use of antimicrobials,” says Hannah, “there has been a growing threat of AMR associated with that. There are 1.3 million deaths associated with AMR each year and that figure continues to grow.”
He continues: “One key challenge about AMR is that there have been no new classes of antibiotic treatments in decades, so the rate at which drugs are becoming resistant is higher than the generation of new forms of medication. Therefore, we believe the most effective approach is to be assessing the existing arsenal of antibiotics, making sure we are using them effectively, and extending the lifetime of these current stocks of antibiotics.”
Microplate Dx focuses on urinary tract infections (UTIs) as there are around 150 million recorded cases of this globally, with one in four sepsis cases correlating to poorly treated UTIs.
“When it comes to sepsis,” explains Hannah, “speed is of the utmost importance, as the survival rate reduces by 8% as each hour passes before a patient can become septic. This truly highlights the danger of what can occur if AMRs are left unchecked.”
Indeed, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that sepsis, or infections that cause it, start before patients go into hospitals in nearly 87% of all cases.
Hannah stresses that the threat of AMR is not just restricted to healthcare. “Misuse of antibiotics also has devastating impacts on the veterinary and agricultural settings,” he says, which threatens the safeguarding of our crops and ecosystems.
Though AMR affects all countries, there is a higher proportion of deaths in low-income and middle-income countries, with Poonam believing that this trend correlates to accessibility.
“Different regions have a different prevalence of infection rates because of the availability of funding and treatment,” she says. “In lower and middle-income countries, an antibiotic prescription is a different model, meaning people can take it without a required prescription.
“This has led to increased infection rates in these areas and patients becoming more resistant. This is a stark difference compared to industrialised countries like the UK where policies restrict this from occurring, with GPs noting if a patient’s antibiotics prescription is a recurring problem.”
Governments are beginning to tackle this crisis, according to Hannah. “AMR research and treatment is now being implemented by governmental policy, and across the world, it has been identified as an area of increasing concern, showing that now is the time to focus on this issue.”
Past and future funding rounds
Apart from Malik and Hannah, Microplate Dx’s founders also include chief technology adviser Damion Corrigan and chief scientific adviser Paul Hoskisson, both of whom are professors at the university.
The spinout completed a £500,000 ($606,000) pre-seed round led by investment firm Deepbridge Capital a month ago. University of Strathclyde’s Strathclyde Inspire Entrepreneurs Fund and Stephen Young Entrepreneurship Award also took part. Scottish Enterprise supplied grant financing, while the company also won cash from Scottish Edge, Converge Challenge and Centre for Process Innovation.
“Our lead investor, as well as our university, has been absolutely integral to our success so far,” says Hannah. “The fact that Deepbridge Capital came in at a late stage with a sizeable investment was a testament to what we are doing from a technical, clinical, commercial and technological point of view.
“These investors have been excellent and have helped us to grow technically as a team, commercially and cement solid positions for us driving forward as well as opening doors and relationships for us with the NHS and its clinicians.”
Malik adds: “Our existing investors really recognise the potential of our team, the technology and what good it can do to the society, which is why Deepbridge Capital and other investors came on board. We want to be smart with our money, so we seek investors that can add more than just capital, but also who we can build strong long-term relationships with.
“We are looking to find investors in our next round that can provide access to both geographic regions, because the company’s ambitions are to become global, so we are looking to enter into different markets, and those who have experience in medtech and life sciences investments. We need a long-term care investor who buys into our vision, as healthcare investments are usually much slower due to the various regulatory pathways, like through the US Food and Drugs Administration.”
Born out of University of Strathclyde
“Microplate Dx was born out of University of Strathclyde,” says Hannah. “The founders started this company with the advent of our Alumni Nature Surprise Discovery Award, and academic funding from the Medical Research Council.
“We then developed a proof of concept as an academic project at the university. Once we realised that the proof of data concept was looking strong, the university’s commercialisation team encouraged us to look at the commercial potential.”
He continues: “The university’s patent attorneys further supported us to file back in 2019, allowing us to publish our proof of data. We then received more funding from the university through schemes such as Innovate UK, through their customer discovery programme ICURe, as well as funding from Scottish Enterprise as part of their High Growth Spinner Programme.”
He adds: “Our relationship with the university has been fantastic as it was built organically through the university system for technical de-risking and building our commercial potential by working with Strathclyde Inspire, which helped us identify and capitalise from an IP perspective. We pay rental charges to the university to make use of their resources, as well as provide us with networking opportunities, so it has been a very close relationship that we want to nurture going forward.”
Malik concludes: “On a final note, we would love to speak to anyone from an NHS, industry-based or corporate point of view who might like to join us or have a discussion with us. Also, we are open to any investors who may also be interested in talking to us too.”