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Grand Challenges Initiative Supports Unorthodox Research

May 5, 2009

Three British scientific teams working on unorthodox approaches to prevent and treat infectious diseases were among the recipients announced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as part of their Grand Challenges initiative, The Times Online reported.

One such approach includes a handheld, battery-powered device that uses a magnet to detect the presence of malaria parasites in blood, which could dramatically speed the diagnosis of the disease

A team of engineers from the University of Exeter is currently developing the device.

Meanwhile, researchers from the Royal Holloway University, London, are attempting to compile a library of all possible mutations of HIV.

They hope to pinpoint why the virus is able to evade the body’s immune system so effectively. They hope the data will eventually lead to a vaccine that can protect against many variant forms of the virus.

Researchers from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine are looking at how to mimic the body’s natural ability to carry pneumococcal bacteria without contracting infections””something they say appears to improve immunity to the serious illnesses that the bacteria can lead to.

Such work could lead to the development of an inhaled vaccine against pneumonia.

The Gates Foundation will award all three research teams initial grants of $100,000, with the chance of follow-up grants of $1 million if their projects show success.

The foundation also stated it would encourage and accelerate bold and largely unproven research.

The Grand Challenges Explorations grants also include such unorthodox research involving: giving mosquitoes a “head cold” to prevent them from detecting and biting humans; using immunized cows as a means of killing or reducing the reproductive abilities of the mosquitoes that bite them; creating therapeutic tomatoes, modified to deliver antiviral drugs targeting particular viruses; and using a laser on skin before an injection to enhance immune responses stimulated by a vaccine.

The unconventional approaches were required to shake up the thinking on diseases where advances had been slow, according to Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health program.

He said that the five-year program was likely to put $200 million towards research and is designed to get projects off the ground.

“Some things require a revolution, rather than an evolution, in thinking. The problem is we can be locked into an orthodoxy of thinking that shackles us and prevents us from thinking in novel ways,” he said.

However, both Yamada and Bill Gates, who was on the review board, accepted the fact that 90 percent of the projects might fail.

“The point is that where there are currently no solutions, we must work hard to find new solutions. We really believe that true innovation is needed. Some of the ideas might seem crazy, but there is a fine line between crazy and absolutely novel,” said Yamada.

Another grant recipient, Bikul Das of Stanford University Medical School, is working to explore the potential role of stem cells in latent tuberculosis infection.

Das has been a specialist in the study of cancer stem-cell biology for the past decade, but maintained an interest in infectious diseases due to his clinical training in India and Bhutan.

He said he was excited to have the opportunity to join the war against infectious diseases.

“I hope my expertise on cancer and stem-cell biology can help enhance the field and relieve suffering,” he added.

The announcement of the more than 3,000 proposals marks the second wave of Grand Challenges Explorations grants.

This year alone, more than 80 projects at the far edge of innovation in global health research will share millions of dollars of grants to support unorthodox thinking.

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