Trinity Challenge announces inaugural winners

The eight winners have been selected by an international panel of expert judges, out of a total of 340 applications from 61 countries. The competition has seen unprecedented collaborations between the private, public, charitable and academic sectors, and will drive a step-change in using data and analytics for pandemic preparedness.

The University of Cambridge joined a coalition of some of the world’s leading businesses and academic and tech institutions to launch The Trinity Challenge in September 2020. The global challenge, convened by Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity College, provides a £10m prize fund for breakthrough solutions to make sure one billion more people are better protected against health emergencies.

Participatory One Health Disease Detection (PODD), which empowers farmers to identify and report zoonotic diseases that could potentially pass from animals to humans, has been named the grand prize winner at the inaugural awards ceremony. The organisation is being awarded £1.3 million (US$1.8 million) in pledged funding.

Led by Susumpat Patipow, General Director at OpenDream, PODD has developed a platform for livestock owners to report suspected animal illness, and in return receive veterinary care to improve animal health. If it appears a disease outbreak is likely, local health officials will quarantine the sick animals, saving the remaining livestock and possibly preventing the next COVID-19-type outbreak.

Having already achieved significant success in Thailand, with a network of 20,000 farmers helping to detect and control disease outbreaks, PODD is looking to expand its operations to Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Laos, Uganda and Vietnam over the next three years.

BloodCounts! – an international consortium of scientists, led by Professor Carola-Bibiane Schönlieb from Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) that has developed an innovative infectious disease outbreak detection system, was one of two second-prize winners, each awarded £1 million in pledged funding.

Developed by Dr Michael Roberts and Dr Nicholas Gleadall, the BloodCounts! Solution uses data from routine blood tests and powerful AI-based techniques to provide a ‘tsunami-like’ early warning system for new disease outbreaks.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic I have been developing AI-based methods to aid in medical decision making for COVID-19 patients, starting with analysis of Chest X-ray data,” said Roberts, who is affiliated with DAMTP and the Cambridge Mathematics of Information in Healthcare (CMIH) Hub. “Echoing the observations made by the clinical teams, we saw profound and unique differences in the medical measurements of infected individuals, particularly in their full blood count data. It is these changes that we can train models to detect at scale.”

Unlike many current test methods, their approach doesn’t require any prior knowledge of a specific pathogen to work, instead, they use full blood count data to exploit the pathogen detecting abilities of the human immune system by observing changes in the blood measurements associated with infection.

As the full blood count is the world’s most common medical laboratory test, with over 3.6 billion being performed worldwide each year, the BloodCounts! team can rapidly apply their methods to scan for abnormal changes in the blood cells of large populations – alerting public health agencies to potential outbreaks of pathogen infection.

This solution is a demonstration of how the application of AI-based methods can lead to healthcare benefits. It also highlights the importance of strong collaboration between leading organisations, as the development of these algorithms was only possible due the EpiCov data sharing initiative pioneered by Cambridge University Hospitals.

“Hundreds of millions of full blood count tests are being performed every day worldwide, and this meant that we could apply our AI methods at population scale,” said Gleadall, from the University of Cambridge and NHS Blood and Transplant. “Usually the rich measurement data are discarded after summary results have been reported, but by working with Cambridge University, Barts Health London, and University College London NHS Hospitals we have rescued throughout the pandemic the rich data from 2.8 million full blood count tests.”

The Sentinel Forecasting System is the other second-prize winner, and will explore the emergence of new infectious diseases in West Africa, beginning with Lassa fever. The system will combine data from ecology, social science, genomics and epidemiology to provide real-time disease risk for haemorrhagic fevers, such as Lassa and Ebola.

Lassa is a virus usually passed to humans through exposure to food or household items contaminated by infected rats. It is endemic in West African countries including Benin, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Togo and Nigeria.

Around 80% of people who become infected with Lassa virus have no symptoms, and the overall case-fatality rate is 1%. 1 in 5 infections can result in severe disease affecting the liver, spleen and kidneys.

The UCL team will partner with the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in Nigeria, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Zoological Society of London, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Microsoft, and Cambridge’s Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics (LVZ) to produce the system.

“This Trinity Challenge project brings new multidisciplinary technologies together to anticipate climatic, human, animal population, agricultural impacts on the likelihood of spill overs of infections from animals to humans,” said Professor Jonathan Heeney, who leads LVZ at Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine.

Additionally, five 3rd prize winners are each being awarded £480,000 (US$ 660,000) in pledged funding.

Dame Sally Davies said: “It was crystal clear at the beginning of this pandemic that the world had a lack of data, a lack of access to data, and a lack of interoperability of data, presenting a challenge. While others talked, we took action. The solutions we have discovered in the course of the Challenge will be a link between systems and countries.”

In addition to financial support, The Trinity Challenge will provide connections to the right organisations to maximise the impact of these solutions. Since its inception nine months ago, TTC has united early applicants with partners from the private, academic and social sectors to receive access to digital platforms, data, and technical advice, to scale-up the use of data and analytics to protect the world from future health emergencies. The Trinity Challenge has helped form over 200 connections between applicants and its members.

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