You can liken the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to a giant mutual fund for global health, with a diversified portfolio like you might find at T. Rowe Price. The world’s largest philanthropy invests in some big, stable, blue-chip global health projects that are sort of like its version of IBM or Boeing stock, and balances that out with smaller bets that are most likely to fail, but have the potential to break out like the next Facebook or Groupon.
Today, the Seattle-based foundation announced its latest set of grants from its Grand Challenges Exploration program, wagering that it has found some high-growth prospects in vaccines, drugs and diagnostics. The foundation has given 88 scientific teams from around the world $100,000 awards to test some out-of-the-box ideas that are too daring to get support from federal funding agencies, which tend to favor more incremental projects, and ones that can win consensus from the powers that be in academic science.
“This is our most innovation-seeking, high-risk program that really tries to get new paradigmatic ideas,” says Chris Wilson, the foundation’s director of discovery in global health. “Most of these ideas will not succeed, but even if a tiny fraction does succeed, and really does something different, it could have an impact.”
The Gates Foundation has been pursuing varying degrees of what it calls Grand Challenges in Global Health for more than seven years. After some mixed results with bigger-money/longer-term projects (which the Seattle Times wrote about in November), the foundation has been shifting its priorities in the direction of the smaller, less conventional projects.
The Grand Challenges Explorations program, a $100 million initiative started in 2008, has now issued a total of about 500 grants. The foundation received 2,500 simple two-page applications from scientists in 100 countries, so competition to get the awards is intense. About one out of every 10 have proven compelling enough to win further grant support, Wilson says. And, like you’d expect, this high-risk activity represents a minority of what the $36.7 billion foundation does. Grand Challenges Explorations represents about 20 percent of the investment the foundation makes in discovery research, Wilson says.
“What we’re doing is re-balancing our portfolio,” Wilson says. “When early stage discovery research began at the foundation, it was almost 100 percent in the Grand Challenges in Global Health program. It was like putting all your eggs into 45 baskets. What we’ve done is rebalance our portfolio so we put 20 percent of our discovery money in this program, Grand Challenges Explorations.”
None of these unorthodox ideas has yet matured enough to show they work in the ultimate proving ground—controlled human clinical trials—but that is the goal, Wilson says.
Here are a few examples of the grant winners singled out by the Gates Foundation in today’s statement.
• James Flanegan of the University of Florida will explore developing a poliovirus vaccine composed of virus capsids—the protein shell of the virus—that look like the virus but are not infectious.
• Simon Carding of the University of East Anglia, UK, will test whether live gut bacteria can generate immunity by delivering poliovirus antigens to the intestinal mucosa.
• Jacob John of Christian Medical College in India will study the effect of inactivated poliovirus vaccine on gut immunity in Indian children previously given the oral polio vaccine. Boosting immunity with IPV could result in strategies for accelerating polio eradication.
Examples of vaccines and other tools:
• Erez Lieberman-Aiden and his team at Harvard University, propose to develop a low-cost microbial fuel cell from naturally occurring soil microbes which could be used to recharge a cell phone. These fuel cells do not require any sophisticated materials to build, and can be easily assembled using locally available materials.
• Marc-Andre Langlois of the University of Ottawa, Canada, will develop small molecules that combine together to form a toxic compound that specifically eliminates only HIV-infected cells. If successful, it could lead to a cure for HIV.
Examples of next generation sanitation technologies:
• Guillermo Bazan of UC Santa Barbara will explore an innovative way to break down human waste and convert the energy into electricity and heat.
• Virginia Gardiner of Loowatt in the United Kingdom will develop a waterless toilet that seals waste into a portable cartridge within biodegradable film, for local anaerobic digestion. The digester produces fuel and fertilizer, creating local waste treatment economies.
• Olufunke Cofie of the International Water Management Institute in Ghana will develop fertilizer pellets made from treated human waste for market sale to increase agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa and reduce health risks from untreated waste.
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