June 27, 2005

Gates grants aim to improve health of world’s poor

By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Projects to develop needle-freevaccines for children, to render mosquitoes incapable oftransmitting disease and to make cassava more nutritious madethe cut for $435 million worth of new grants from GatesFoundation.

The Grand Challenges awards announced on Monday alsoinclude a project to develop a cheap hand-held device thatcould diagnose a range of illnesses and a plan to fight diseaseusing stem cells as a lifetime vaccine.

"It's shocking how little research is directed toward thediseases of the world's poorest countries," said Microsoftfounder Bill Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation isfunding the bulk of the grants.

"By harnessing the world's capacity for scientificinnovation, I believe we can transform health in the developingworld and save millions of lives."

In 2003 Gates issued a call for proposals for his program,hoping to attract some ideas that could not get funding fromthe more traditional sources such as governments andpharmaceutical companies.

"We were amazed ... we received more than one thousandideas from scientists in 33 countries," former NationalInstituted of Health director Dr. Harold Varmus, who chairedthe scientific board that guided the initiative, told reportersin a telephone briefing.

The board whittled the proposals down to 43 they thoughthad the best chance of both succeeding and of making a bigdifference to health in poor countries.

Gates, which has pledged $5.6 billion for global healthsince 1995, bankrolled most of the $436 million in grants, withanother $27.1 million from Britain's nonprofit Wellcome Trust,and $4.5 million from the Canadian Institutes of HealthResearch.

"I think we will see enormous impact with the realpotential to make breakthroughs," said NIH director Dr. EliasZerhouni, another board member.

Among those getting grants:

-- Dr. Abraham Sonenshein of the Tufts University School ofMedicine in Boston and colleagues will try to encase vaccinesin bacterial spores so they can be stored at room temperatureand dissolved in water as a powder.

-- Dr. Lorne Babiuk of the University of Saskatchewan inCanada and colleagues will work on a single-dose version of thevaccine for whooping cough that can be delivered orally ornasally

-- Dr. Scott O'Neill of the University of Queensland inAustralia his team will work to genetically modify a bacterialparasite that kills mosquitoes before they are old enough totransmit dengue virus, which infects up to 100 million peopleeach year and causes sometimes fatal fever and hemorrhaging.

-- Dr. Richard Sayre of Ohio State University andcolleagues will work to make cassava, a staple root crop eatenby 250 million people across Africa, less toxic and morenutritious. Cassava must be processed correctly or it causescyanide poisoning and Sayre's team will also work to boost itsprotein and vitamin content.

-- Dr. Paul Yager of the University of Washington and histeam will try to develop a hand-held device carryingminiaturized versions of diagnostics tests.

"This would be done basically on a disposable test cardabout the size of a credit card," said Dr. Richard Klausner, aformer head of the U.S. National Cancer Institute who is nowexecutive director of the Global Health Program at the GatesFoundation. It would be "very, very cheap," Klausner said.

-- Dr. David Baltimore of the California Institute ofTechnology and colleagues will try to genetically engineer stemcells, the body's master cells, so they can be given at birthas a lifetime vaccine against diseases.