Gates Foundation Invests in 104 “Untried, Unproven” Ideas for Global Health

10/22/08Follow @xconomy

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is doling out smaller chunks of cash to spur bigger thinking. The world’s largest private foundation is announcing today it is awarding 104 grants to scientists—at $100,000 apiece—to support off-the-wall ideas that have potential to shake up the conventional wisdom in global health.

The Seattle-based foundation hopes to pump some life into research on HIV, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases. This is part of what the foundation calls “Grand Challenges Explorations.” The plan is to get researchers to fill out concise, 2-page proposals for an “untried or unproven” idea, according to a statement. These are the sometimes wild ideas that can’t get funding through the National Institutes of Health’s peer review system, much less thrill venture capitalists. The hope is that the foundation can speed up its review times, and put its money to work faster in the field on some of these far-out concepts, and maybe spark progress to convince other funding agencies to pile on later.

The snappier application process—which kept reviewers blinded to a scientist’s credentials and reputation—appears to have encouraged people to put forward some wildly imaginative ideas. One scientist, Marka Szabolcs of Columbia University, proposes preventing malaria transmission with a “mosquito flashlight” that disorients the bugs. Suzanne Fleiszig of the University of California, Berkeley wants to study natural defenses of the eye to see if it leads to powerful new antimicrobial drugs. Another researcher in Japan, Hiroyuki Matsuoka, thinks it can be possible to turn mosquitos into “flying syringes” that deliver vaccines when they bite people.

“We were hoping this program would level the playing field so anyone with a transformational idea could more quickly assess its potential for the benefit of global health,” said Tachi Yamada, president of global health at the Gates Foundation, in a statement issued at the Grand Challenges annual meeting in Bangkok. “The quality of the applications exceeded all of our expectations.”

The 104 grant winners come from 22 countries. A sizable chunk of them hail from Xconomy network cities, with seven from Boston and five from Seattle, but none from San Diego. (Get ‘em next time, SoCal.) Here’s a rundown of the local grant winners:

—Francois Baneyx of the University of Washington won his award for an idea called VACAS, or vaccinating adjuvant core antigen shell nanoparticles.

—James Kublin of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has an idea for studying fast-growing sporozoites (e.g., cells that develop in a mosquito’s salivary glands) for producing a new type of whole cell vaccines.

—Pradipsinh Rathod of the UW received support for strategies to block hypermutagenesis in malaria parasites.

—Keith Jerome of the UW is going to test his ideas for homing endonucleases that might cure dormant HIV infections.

—Dmitry Shayakhmet of the UW will study elimination of macrophage cells infected with tuberculosis.

The Boston contingent includes:

—George Church of Harvard University (an Xconomist) will use the cash to pursue studies of the genomes of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

—Tayyaba Hasan of Harvard will test an idea about using light therapy for leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection.

—Roy Kishony of Harvard will study drugs that invert selection for resistance.

—Sarah Fortune of Harvard will look at chromatin condensation as a master switch to put pathogens into latency, or dormancy.

—Kim Lewis of Northeastern University will capture dormant tuberculosis cells from a mammalian host.

—Ali Munawar of Cambridge, MA-based Molecmo Nanobiotechnologies is planning to target the ways HIV gets ferried inside cells as an antiviral approach.

—Shi-hua Xiang of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston will look at mucosal delivery and retention of anti-HIV agents using lactobacillus, a type of bacteria that turns lactose and other sugars into lactic acid.

Lastly, we spotted a prominent HIV researcher now in Oregon, who used to be at the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute:

—Nancy Haigwood of Oregon Health and Science University received a grant for programming neutralizing antibodies for HIV vaccines.

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