Sustainable Development Goal Challenge - Ministers Harris and Fleming announce winning projects promoting infant and child health
28th September 2023: Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris TD, and Minister of State for International Development and Diaspora, Sean Fleming TD, today announced the winning project in the Science Foundation Ireland-Irish Aid Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Challenge, following rigorous assessment by a panel of global health experts.
Prof. Sean Doyle and Dr Nicola Mountford of Maynooth University, with partner team lead, Dr Peter Waiswa in Makerere University in Uganda, have won the first SDG Challenge focused on SDG 3: Good Health and Well-being, with a new approach to identifying sepsis in newborn babies. The team was supported by the Irish Neonatal Health Alliance as its societal impact champion.
Sepsis causes 17 neonatal deaths per day in Uganda. Existing tests can be difficult to use on babies and may not provide results quickly enough. Doctors worldwide are reluctant to use antibiotics without tests to prove they are needed, to reduce the risk from new superbugs. Prof Doyle’s Neosepsis team is working on a new low-resource test that can be conducted using a small drop of blood from a heel prick. The team receives €1 million in additional funding to be used over the next two years across both countries.
Minister Harris said: “Significant progress has been made in tackling and reducing child mortality in the past two decades, and the Neosepsis project will contribute in areas where improvements are still urgently needed.
“The team has made rapid progress since being selected for funding only 18 months ago. This progress demonstrates that working together, we can effectively tackle the Sustainable Development Goals and make a real difference on a global scale.”
Minister Fleming said: “The winning project is an exciting collaboration between experts in Ireland and Uganda that will have a real-world impact. The project the team is working on has the potential to transform sepsis testing. Seventeen children die of sepsis each day in Uganda alone.
“I congratulate the researchers on winning the Science Foundation Ireland-Irish Aid Sustainable Development Goals Challenge and hope the additional funding provided will help with this vital research.”
Prof. Philip Nolan, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland said: “The teams involved in this challenge have brought themselves to the heart of the problems they are trying to solve, meeting those affected and coming up with achievable solutions. To see the progress they have made in such a short period of time inspires me, and I hope will inspire other researchers to accelerate implementation of their discoveries.”
The Neosepsis team is adapting an existing technology for the detection of serum amyloid A (SAA), which is a proven biomarker of infection. They will use the additional funding to move towards regulatory approval in Uganda, manufacturing of the tests and further evaluation studies.
“This was a true team effort from Maynooth to Uganda,” said Prof. Doyle, “In addition to our research teams, and the hundreds of families involved in initial trials, we also thank Accuplex Diagnostics Limited in Maynooth who contributed their expertise and test device prototypes.”
A runner-up prize was awarded to Dr Joseph Gallagher of University College Dublin and Dr Chris Watson of Queen’s University Belfast and University College Dublin, for the BIOTOPE project. In partnership with Dr Balwani Mbakaya of Mzuzu University in Malawi, the team is working to reduce deaths from childhood pneumonia.
Pneumonia kills more children than any other single disease with an estimated 935,000 deaths per annum. The project builds on existing work in primary care in Malawi and will use cellular networks and smartphone technology to develop models to help categorise the severity of pneumonia cases for treatment, and work on tests to reduce over-prescription of antibiotics.
The team will use the additional €893,000 over two years to improve their machine-learning models, finalise the best candidate biomarkers for disease severity, and conduct clinical studies in eight districts. A further group of teams is working on SDG 13, relating to the climate crisis.