Grand Challenges in Global Health awards $450m to top scientists

Grants totalling U.S $450m were awarded yesterday to some of the world's most inventive scientists to enable them to turn their novel ideas into practical solutions to the 14 greatest problems plaguing human health today.

The multibillionaire entrepreneur founders of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, know a bit about invention, and yesterday revealed the winners of the Grand Challenges in global health, which it launched in 2003, to identify the major obstacles to improving health and find ways to overcome them.

Included amongst the 43 projects to receive the funding are several aiming to produce vaccines that do not require refrigeration, a plan to genetically engineer mosquitoes that die before they are mature enough to pass on dengue fever, and ideas for vaccinating children without using needles, which can cause infections if they are not sterile; along with schemes for growing crops full of vitamins often absent from the diets of the poorest children.

The Gates Foundation says the enthusiasm for the ultimate contest in 'blue-sky thinking' was enormous.

Harold Varmus, chair of the international scientific board that guides the Grand Challenges, says they were amazed by the response, which showed that there is a tremendous untapped potential among the world's scientists to address diseases of the developing world.

The 14 challenges were chosen from more than 1,000 suggestions from scientists and health experts around the world.

Applications included: improving vaccines so that needles, refrigeration and multiple doses would not be required; developing new ways to stop insects transmitting diseases such as malaria; finding ways to treat latent infection such as tuberculosis which has not yet manifested itself in symptoms; and finding ways to fight the resistance that bacteria develop to drugs.

Even though science constantly expands its knowledge of disease and medicine, progress and success tends to help the rich world.

Global health experts have often discussed the "10:90 gap", in which 10% of spending on health research and development addresses the needs of the 90% of the world's population which is the poorest and least healthy.

Rick Klausner, executive director of the global health programme of the foundation, says that scientific and technical communities have been encouraged for over 100 years to to create the possibilities for extending diagnosis and curing diseases.

However scientific efforts at creating modern medicines have often ignored the diseases only experienced by half to two-thirds of the world that live in developing countries.

He believes the 43 projects being funded will "bring to bear extraordinary brilliance" on difficult and neglected problems.

Some of the bright ideas, if successful have potential for the rich world, too.

One team, led by Abraham Sonenshein from Tufts University School of Medicine in the U.S., has been awarded $5m for research on encasing vaccines in harmless bacteria that have temperature resistant properties. It could mean vaccines being produced in powdered form in a bag, ready to mix with water and swallow and most children would be grateful to avoid the needle.

The ideas of Lorne Babiuk from the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, who gets $5.6m to work on reducing the three whooping cough vaccines to one, which would be delivered via the mucosal lining of the nose or mouth, also has universal appeal.

Paul Yager and team from the University of Washington, will get $15.4m to develop a test kit; It will be a small card, about the size of a credit card, containing all the necessary reagents to test a blood sample for a range of diseases, such as bacterial infections, malnutrition and HIV.

It would be inserted into a hand-held computer and read in about 10 minutes.

British scientist Robin Shattock, from St George's Medical School, London, gets $19.7m to work on a vaccine for HIV that will stimulate the immune system's fight against the virus in the lining of the vagina. They think they can devise a time-release vaccine that will be delivered through a low-cost gel or silicone ring.

A further $10m goes to Adrian Hill's team at Oxford University, which will work on ways of stimulating the immune system that could be used in developing vaccines for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

The foundation has already funded many mainstream scientific studies into new vaccines, but Mr Gates has made it clear scientists should do more to tackle the diseases of the poor.

He says it is shocking how little research is directed towards the diseases of the world's poorest countries.

He is optimistic that by harnessing the world's capacity for scientific innovation, health in the developing world can be transformed and millions of lives can be saved.

The Wellcome Trust, in the UK, said yesterday it would put a further $27.1m into the pot for the Grand Challenges, with the Canadian Institutes of Health adding $4.5m.

Further proposals from scientists with bright ideas are under consideration.

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