The £10 Million Challenge (Horizon)

Following a public vote, the money was eventually awarded to the battle against antibiotic resistance

Following a public vote, the money was eventually awarded to the battle against antibiotic resistance

Broadcaster: BBC 2

Year: 2014

Genre: Documentary


Review by Lorna McCall

Although 2014 may have been the first time many people had heard of it, the Longitude Prize is not new. In fact it was the combination of the 300th anniversary of the prize and the 50th anniversary of the Horizon TV programme that led to this highly publicised competition to find a worthy winner of £10 million pounds to make a significant impact in tackling one of six key problems: antibiotic resistance, paralysis, malnutrition, carbon emission from jet engines, inadequate supply of fresh water and living with dementia.

This summary focuses on the four most biologically-related topics. Each section is available as a specific clip (click on subheadings below for links).

Antibiotics (7.5 minute segment, starting at 05:28)

The first area of research discussed in the programme relates to appropriate use of antibiotics (see this link for clip). The rise of antibiotic resistance over the years means that 5000 patients in the UK already die every year due to treatment being ineffective. It is important to have antibiotics in order to prevent small infections becoming deadly; or to prevent infection in the first instance for example during routine surgeries.

Single point mutations in just one gene in bacteria can lead to resistance, resulting in previously valuable drugs becoming ineffective. To reduce the possibility of resistance development it is important to limit exposure of bacteria to the chemicals, therefore doctor’s need to know whether an illness is being caused by virus or bacteria. If the current infection is caused by a virus, use of antibiotics won’t help, but might allow bystander bacteria to develop resistance mutations that might be a problem at a later stage).

Current research is looking into identifying bacterial infection over viruses. In this case antibiotics can be prevented from being distributed unnecessarily and therefore halting the development of resistance. For example, blood tests can be used to identify a specific bacterial biomarker Procalcitin. If this is present above a cut off level, antibiotics are administered.

Procalcitrin is a good indicator of whether the infection is caused by a bacterium or a virus; if the former, the levels will be raised but not for the latter. However further research and development is needed to make the current machinery and testing smaller, quicker and more efficient – this would allow front-line doctors such as GPs to make a timely diagnosis. Alternatively, the money might be given towards development of another technique in order to prevent resistance development in bacteria.

Paralysis (8.25 mins, starting at 13:14)

Someone in the UK becomes paralysed every 8 hours. This section looks at possible treatments. In recent experiments it has been shown that either surgery and/or stem cell therapy may be able to repair spinal injuries, however these treatments require far more research before becoming routine. An alternative strategy involves use of robotic exoskeletons re-establishing movement in paralysed patients. This helps the patient both psychologically and physically to maintain leg muscles and core postural muscles.

Exoskeletons have been developed to help patients stand and move around by themselves. However existing technology is bulky and must be compressed to make it smaller, lighter and faster to respond. Current models also require the users to control them via a joystick.

Other robotics helps patients to control exoskeletons through harnessing brainwaves of the motor cortex. However the brainwaves detected are minutely small and difficult to distinguish from background interference. It is also problematic for the robotics to distinguish intended direction from the brainwaves; both problems that need to be overcome to allow safe use in real life patients.

Malnutrition (8 mins, starting at 21:21)

Malnutrition affects 800 million worldwide and 3 million in the UK. Lack of food is not the only cause of this; lack of vital nutrients, such as vitamins, and minerals such as iron also contribute. Many sufferers lack protein in their diets, leading to Kwashiorkor. This causes brittle skin, hair and nails and the tell-tale ‘pot belly’ look.

Some potential ways to alleviate this situation are discussed (see this clip). One technique developed already is the farming of insects as an alternative ‘meat’ source to cattle. Insects have an equal or greater protein composition, and contain higher proportions of minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium. Advantages also include more efficient farming techniques and production of less greenhouse gases. The main drawback is the social and psychological bias against eating insects.

Another development involves genetic modification of crops. Introducing genes into a plant can increase the yield, improve the composition or introduce a whole new element. GMOs have been developed and are used in many countries around the world, but are currently illegal to sell in the UK due to public and scientific scepticism.

Research will have to look into producing a food source that is nutritious, sustainable and available on a large yet cheap scale.

Dementia (7 mins, starting at 49:47)

The last topic covered was the burden of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease (see this clip). As many as 50,000 a people leave work to care for a relative with dementia. The focus here is mostly on the potential for development of robotic carers or adaptation of kitchens to be more appropriate for patients with dementia. However, this section might be of interest to people studying neuroscience.

After public voting by the nation the winner was announced on the One Show. Antibiotics won the vote. The Longitude committee are now looking for individuals and teams to enter ideas and develop these to help in this area of research.

The BBC website for this episode is available via this link.


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