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updated 4:21 PM BST, Aug 21, 2014
Technology and life sciences news from the Cambridge cluster

Cambridge cancer sniffing nanotechnology lands $120k prize

A latex gloved finger with a tiny microchip on it, the Owlstone sensor.Nanotech sensor firm, Owlstone, is to expand the range of diseases its penny sized chip can sniff out after it was awarded a $120,000 prize for its innovative technology.

Owlstone was one of 12 finalists in the $2.25 million Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGE and Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE and the only company from the UK in a competition dominated by the US which had nine companies shortlisted alongside one Japanese and one Israeli firm.

The competition is open to companies across the world and is, according to Nokia, part of an effort to accelerate the availability of hardware sensors and software sensing technology that can be used to access, understand and improve people's health.

It is only scheduled to run once, but is split into two distinct rounds, or 'challenges', each with a $1.125m cash pot to share between six teams. Owlstone's entry fell under the first challenge, the second challenge will take place in 2014 with entries closing in February of that year.

The chances of defeating many life-threatening diseases are vastly increased the earlier a diagnosis is made, but often there are barely any obvious symptoms to tell of. That is one of the reasons that a cheap, quick and straightforward test using a technology like Owlstone's could potentially transform people's life chances.

Originally built for industrial applications and picked up by the US defence industry, the Owlstone chip acts like a mini mass-spectrometer and quickly filters out chemicals in almost any given gas. Because the the sensors are so small and they can be reprogrammed to detect different elements, the costs are low and the system is highly portable, opening up several potential markets.

At the moment Owlstone is using a modified version of its existing Lonestar product, which is been sold to researchers as a tool to discover disease markers, but the company plans to also develop clinical instruments built off the back of bench top and handheld devices.

Sensor technology across healthcare has major potential. Once captured, body metrics can be converted into valuable insights about detection, assessment, treatment and management of health conditions. Advance sensing technology can make this process even faster, cheaper and far more accessible.

As well as Owlstone, Cambridge already has one very promising startup working on sensors for the healthcare sector, Cambridge Temperature Concepts, whose unobtrusive device takes thousands of temperature readings every day to predict when a woman is most likely to conceive, a technology the company says has proved itself as effective as IVF among infertile – not sterile – couples.

Other competition technologies included an ECG heart monitor connected to a mobile phone so as to pass information to the healthcare workers and an inner eye scanner that could spot signs of an impending stroke.