Gates experimental grants start to show promise

AP News
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Posted: Oct 27, 2010 6:45 PM
Gates experimental grants start to show promise

A night light that scares away mosquitoes possibly carrying malaria is among nine ideas the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation thinks are worth more research dollars, after giving more than 300 scientists seed money to take an initial look at some far-out notions.

The nine scientists will each get up to an additional $1 million over five years to take their ideas to the next level and see if they have the potential to save lives, said Chris Wilson, director of the foundation's Global Health Discovery program.

Wilson said they have more promising ideas than money budgeted for the second phase of the program, and are looking for financial partners to help more researchers continue their explorations. Grand Challenges Canada is distributing government money in support of promising ideas from Canadian scientists.

Foundation officials said some of the program's success so far is due to an unusual approval process that doesn't eliminate ideas just because peer scientists found them unlikely to succeed.

"It's been a very exciting program," said Dr. Tachi Yamada, who is president of foundation's Global Health Program. "We've reviewed 18,000 proposals from 31 countries, a good percentage from the developing world... It's created a culture of innovation."

"We have tremendous flexibility in how we do what we do. That's allowed us to create a venture-capital model for investing in innovation through research grants," Yamada added.

The foundation initially chose 340 scientists for its Grant Challenges Explorations, worth $100,000 each, saying it would be taking a calculated risk by giving money for whatever wacky idea the world's best minds would come up with. "If one or two leads to a substantial impact, that's a huge return on our investment," Wilson said.

Application requirements didn't include being a medical researcher to review problems of malaria and HIV/AIDS, but did require access to a laboratory.

The next round of $100,000 initial grants are aimed at polio, HIV, sanitation technology, cell-phone applications for health, and new technologies to improve the health of mothers and newborns.

More than 18,000 scientists have applied _ plus those hoping to make the first group's second round _ by the Nov. 2 deadline. Wilson said 10 percent of those who apply for phase two will be approved, based on the promise of their projects and how closely they meet the goals of the foundation.

Columbia University astrophysicist Szabolcs Marka is getting second-round funding for his idea to create light barriers to stop mosquitoes from reaching humans. The father of four said he wanted to do something to help children, which wasn't possible with his usual research using lasers to study black holes.

"I was thinking for a long time, how can I do something beyond fundamental science?" he said.

With his first round of research, Marka found it was possible to use a bright light to stop insects. Now he needs to find a portable, inexpensive-to-power system that he can test outside the lab.

He will look at solar and battery power and consider ways the light can have a double purpose, perhaps to provide children enough light to study at night. This new kind of mosquito repellant also could have commercial applications.

Other scientists getting more money to keep looking into their ideas include:

_ Keith Jerome, a researcher at the University of Washington using proteins to seek and destroy gene mutations created by the HIV virus;

_ Dan Feldheim of the University of Colorado, who is testing the possibility of adding small gold particles to the drugs used to treat infectious diseases, like tuberculosis and HIV, to help the treatments withstand drug resistance;

_ Pradipsinh Rathod of the University of Washington, who is looking at the structure of malaria parasite genes to find ays to block mutations that lead to drug resistance.

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AP writer Maria Cheng contributed to this story from London.

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Online:

Grand Challenges: http://www.grandchallenges.org/explorations/Pages/introduction.aspx