Bill Gates funds British scientists in unorthodox health research

The Times | May 5, 2009
By Sam Lister

There is a magnet that can detect malaria at the flick of a switch, a flu-resistant chicken, an “antiviral” tomato and a vaccine enhanced with the use of a laser. The ideas are so bold that, as the scientists behind them admit, they can often struggle for funding.

Today, though, more than 80 projects at the far edge of innovation in global health research will share millions of pounds of grants to support unorthodox thinking — and the outside chance of a world-changing discovery.

Among the recipients, announced today by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as part of their Grand Challenges initiative, are three British scientific teams pursuing novel approaches to prevent and treat infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria and pneumonia, as well as viruses such as HIV.

A team of engineers from the University of Exeter is attempting to create a handheld, battery-powered device that uses a magnet to detect the presence of malaria parasites in blood — and dramatically speed the diagnosis of the disease.

Scientists from Royal Holloway University, London, are attempting to compile a library of all possible mutations of HIV — the way that it manages to evade the body’s immune system so effectively — with the ultimate goal of a vaccine that can protect against many variant forms of the virus.

A third team is looking at how to mimic the body’s natural ability to carry pneumococcal bacteria without contracting infections, which appears to improve immunity to the serious illnesses that they can cause. The scientists, from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, hope that the work might lead to the development of an inhaled vaccine against pneumonia.

Each will receive initial grants of $100,000 (£65,000) from the Gates Foundation, with the chance of follow-on grants of $1 million if their projects show success. In a radical departure from conventional funding systems the foundation asked only for a two-page application and no preliminary data for the first stage award. It is hoped that this approach will encourage and accelerate bold and largely unproven research.

Other projects among the 81 recipients of Grand Challenges Explorations grants, which come from universities, research institutes, non-profit organisations and private companies in 17 different countries, include: giving mosquitoes a “head cold” to prevent them from detecting and biting humans; using immunised 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.

Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health programme, said that unconventional approaches were required to shake up the thinking on diseases where advances had been slow. He said that the five-year programme was designed to get projects off the ground and was likely to put $200 million towards research. “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.

Dr Yamada said that he and Bill Gates, who was on the review board, which comprises scientists and entrepreneurs, accepted that 90 per cent of the projects might fail, and that there might even be the odd charlatan trying to apply for a grant. “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.”

Luke Savage and Dave Newman, part of the University of Exeter team, said that the support was invaluable. “The grants are being provided with the minimum of procedure — it cuts through the red tape and is very focused,” Dr Savage said. “The Gates Foundation is taking on things with real importance, not just nice, esoteric research. It is very exciting to be part of that community.”

The two other British project leaders, George Dickson, of Royal Holloway, and Stephen Gordon, from Liverpool, said that the possibility of accessing funding of $1 million would transform their work. “These are projects that are examples of high-risk research, in the sense that the outcome is less certain,” Professor Dickson said. “It is difficult to get pilot funding for projects like this through conventional channels.”

Bikul Das, of Stanford University Medical School, was another grant recipient, for work to explore the potential role of stem cells in latent tuberculosis infection. Although a specialist in the study of cancer stem-cell biology for the past decade, Dr Das had maintained an interest in infectious diseases, with clinical training in India and Bhutan.

“I am so excited to have this opportunity to join the war against infectious diseases,” he said. “I hope my expertise on cancer and stem-cell biology can help enhance the field and relieve suffering.”

The grant recipients are based in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin America, and North America.

Applicants were selected from more than 3,000 proposals, with all levels of scientists represented — from veteran researchers to postgraduates — and a range of disciplines, such as neurobiology, immunology and polymer science. The announcement marks the second wave of Grand Challenges Explorations grants, with applications for the next round accepted until the end of this month.

Successful applicants

— Develop a tomato that delivers antiviral drugs when eaten
Eric Lam, at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

— Immunise cows against mosquitoes, so that when the insect bites them it might die or have reduced ability to reproduce
Jefferson Vaughan, at the University of North Dakota

— Develop “sticky nanoparticles” that attach to tuberculosis-infected cells and slowly release anti-TB drugs. The new therapy could shorten treatment time and reduce side-effects, using existing medications
Boitumelo Semete, at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in South Africa

— Test whether protein crystals produced by insect viruses can be used as a new way to deliver vaccines. These “micro-cube” protein particles are stable, could be used against multiple diseases and may not require refrigeration Fasséli Coulibaly, at Monash University in Australia

— Examine the potential to infect malaria-carrying mosquitoes with a fungus that, like a head cold, suppresses their sense of smell and their ability to find human hosts
Thomas Baker, at Pennsylvania State University

— Explore whether illuminating skin with a targeted laser before administering a vaccine can enhance the immune response
Mei Wu, at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School

— Test whether inducing antibodies against anti-malarial drugs can significantly prolong the half-life of those drugs in the body, extending their effects
Erich and Thomas Cerny, of Wissenschaftlicher Fonds Inkologie in Switzerland

— Design a network of outdoor mosquito traps to help to reduce malaria transmission in rural areas
Fredros Okumu, of Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania

— Seek ways to generate “self-targeting antibodies” that attack a receptor protein on human immune cells. This could potentially block HIV from entering cells, preventing HIV infection
Lucia Lopalco, of the San Raffaele Scientific Institute in Italy