Around six percent of adults in the UK experience urinary incontinence. Urinary incontinence is particularly common among women: one in three women will suffer from incontinence at some stage of their life. Dealing with incontinence costs the NHS around £425m per year (approaching one percent of the total NHS budget).

Prof. Alan Cottenden leads the Continence & Skin Technology Group in the UCL Department of Medical Physics & Bioengineering. In the early 1990s, he led the development of a re-useable (i.e. washable) absorbent product for lightly-incontinent women, which was successfully launched commercially in 1993 by Roche Medical Products Ltd, subsequently taken on by Hybrand Ltd. So far, the company has sold around 1 million products at a total value of about £8M. Several similar products were subsequently released by other companies. Although successful in terms of comfort and aesthetics, these products have not proved to be 100% reliable. In the meantime, Prof. Cottenden’s work (which included a professional conference’s best-paper award) resulted in a specification for a product designed to provide a significantly improved performance.

Under Prof. Cottenden’s leadership, NHS funding under the Health Technology Devices (HTD) programme enabled a project to be established in June 2007 to develop and evaluate a new commercial prototype based on the improved specification. The HTD project involved two other UK universities (Southampton and Leeds) and five companies (three based in the UK, one in Ireland, and one in Austria). During the next three years, four rounds of testing were performed on new designs of product, involving about 30 women recruited locally. This process involved submission of two patent applications, and a seminal book chapter written by Prof. Cottenden and his team. The HTD project ended in September 2010, and now two of the UK companies are involved in generating greater numbers of prototypes for final evaluation prior to a commercial launch.