Drive to improve the UK’s capability to manage and treat personnel affected by virulent infectious agents.

A portable prototype of an AI-powered disease testing platform for the military is being funded by the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA).

It is being developed by health tech company  Pictura Bio, and could  potentially limit the impact of infectious diseases on military operations by identifying disease from a sample within minutes.

DASA, part of the Government’s Ministry of Defence, ran a competition for the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) to find technologies that can help diagnose and treat military personnel deployed in the field, while addressing the limitations of current in-field diagnostics. 

Pictura Bio was one of two applicants that received funding for the development and optimisation of IDRIS (In-Field Diagnostic for Rapid Infection Sensing), designed specifically for frontline point-of-care use.

Military personnel can be highly susceptible to infectious diseases like influenza, MERS, Ebola, and respiratory infections, due to the physical and mental strains of deployment, close living quarters, frequent contact with novel pathogens and lack of good sanitation. These diseases have a significant impact on the health of military troops, potentially leading to the cancellation of military operations.

Pictura Bio is developing IDRIS, a point-of-care diagnostic test that uses artificial intelligence (AI) specifically trained to recognise pathogens in throat and nose swab samples, including all those affecting military personnel. The device surpasses current diagnostic methods in terms of speed, cost-effectiveness, and accuracy, providing results within five minutes with 99% accuracy.

An IDRIS prototype is currently in development and is expected to be completed by February 2024. Pictura Bio ultimately aims to deploy IDRIS in multiple medical settings across the UK to help contain infectious disease outbreaks through early testing, treatment and isolation of patients.

Unlike current point-of-care tests, the machine learning software embedded in IDRIS, which works like facial recognition but for pathogens, can be trained to identify an unlimited number of pathogens. Plus, IDRIS collects and stores valuable data regarding the progression and spread of infections, significantly enhancing scientific understanding of diseases and guiding decisions pertaining to containment measures.

Dr Dominic Jenner, Senior Scientist, at Dstl, said: “Technologies currently available to enable the diagnosis of individuals exposed to infectious diseases are often time-consuming and resource intensive, this presents a particular challenge for deployed personnel. 

“The DASA Point of Care Diagnostics competition for the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory aimed to find innovations that could provide quick and easy diagnoses on the frontline.

 “Pictura Bio put forward a compelling proposal offering a potentially innovative approach to diagnostics and we are very interested in helping this technology progress.”

Alex Batchelor, CEO of Pictura Bio, adds: “It is clear there is a significant gap in the market for instant, accurate and affordable point-of-care diagnostics for use in-field. By moving away from centralised lab testing, we can take necessary action much quicker to better control the spread of diseases and improve the health of military personnel.

“Our disease testing platform is ideally suited for in-field testing on the front line because it is small, portable, requires little expertise to operate and provides a solution for all of the challenges posed by current diagnostics.”