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Three Canadian researchers get funding from Gates foundation global health initiative

Seattle, WA – The Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative, a major effort to achieve scientific breakthroughs against diseases that kill millions of people each year in the world’s poorest countries, this week offered 43 grants totaling $436 million for a broad range of innovative research projects involving scientists in 33 countries. The ultimate goal of the initiative is to create "deliverable technologies" – health tools that are not only effective, but also inexpensive to produce, easy to distribute, and simple to use in developing countries.

Three of the 43 projects receiving grants are lead by Canadian researchers: Dr Lorne A Babiuk of the University of Saskatchewan; Dr Francis Allen Plummer of the University of Manitoba; and Dr Barton Brett Finlay of the University of British Columbia.

The initiative is supported by a $450 million commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as two new funding commitments: $27.1 million from the Wellcome Trust, and $4.5 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The initiative is managed by global health experts at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), the Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and CIHR. Additional proposed Grand Challenges projects are under review and may be awarded grants later this year.

The Grand Challenges initiative was launched by the Gates Foundation in 2003, in partnership with the National Institutes of Health, with a $200 million grant to the FNIH to help apply innovation in science and technology to the greatest health problems of the developing world.

"It’s shocking how little research is directed toward the diseases of the world’s poorest countries," said Bill Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "By harnessing the world’s capacity for scientific innovation, I believe we can transform health in the developing world and save millions of lives."

Each of the 43 projects seeks to tackle one of 14 major scientific challenges that, if solved, could lead to important advances in preventing, treating, and curing diseases of the developing world. The 14 Grand Challenges, which were identified from among more than 1,000 suggestions from scientists and health experts around the world, address the following goals:

– Developing improved childhood vaccines that do not require refrigeration, needles, or multiple doses, in order to improve immunization rates in developing countries, where each year 27 million children do not receive basic immunizations;

– Studying the immune system to guide the development of new vaccines, including vaccines to prevent malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV, which together kill more than 5 million people each year;

– Developing new ways of preventing insects from transmitting diseases such as malaria, which infects 350-500 million people every year;

– Growing more nutritious staple crops to combat malnutrition, which affects more than 2 billion people worldwide;

– Discovering ways to prevent drug resistance because many drugs that were once successful at treating diseases like malaria are losing their effectiveness;

– Discovering methods to treat latent and chronic infections such as tuberculosis, which nearly a third of the world’s population harbors in their bodies; and

– More accurately diagnosing and tracking disease in poor countries that do not have sophisticated laboratories or reliable medical recordkeeping systems.

Following the publication of the Grand Challenges in October 2003, more than 1,500 research projects were proposed by scientists in 75 countries.

The Canadian projects are as follows:

– Linking Innate and Specific Immunity to Develop Single-Dose Vaccines for Neonates, lead investigator: Lorne A Babiuk, University of Saskatchewan. Grant amount: $5.6 million. Project description: Very young children are the most vulnerable to infectious disease. Dr Babiuk’s team will develop novel vaccine formulations that could protect newborns and young children from whooping cough (pertussis) with a single dose. Whooping cough is one of the most serious respiratory diseases among young children worldwide, causing 200,000 to 400,000 deaths each year. The researchers will develop vaccines that could be delivered via the mucosal lining of the nose or mouth, stimulating immunity at the surfaces where most disease-causing agents enter the body. It is anticipated that these novel vaccine formulations could also be used in vaccines against other diseases affecting newborns and young children.

– Comprehensive Studies of Mechanisms of HIV Resistance in Highly Exposed Uninfected Women, lead investigator: Francis Allen Plummer, University of Manitoba. Grant amount: $8.3 million. Project description: Dr Plummer and colleagues will expand on past research that has identified groups of commercial sex workers in Kenya who do not become infected with HIV despite repeated sex without condoms. While the phenomenon is well documented, it is not well understood. The project will undertake a comprehensive analysis of these women’s immune systems and genetics. Understanding what makes them apparently immune to the virus could guide HIV vaccine and drug development.

– Novel Therapeutics That Boost Innate Immunity to Treat Infectious Diseases, lead investigator: Barton Brett Finlay, University of British Columbia. Grant amount: $8.7 million. Project description: Dr Finlay’s team will explore new ways to combat drug resistance by developing medicines that, rather than targeting specific disease-causing organisms, seek to boost the body’s general defenses against infectious agents. Because the medicines would act on the human body and not the microbes themselves, the researchers expect that it will be more difficult for the microbes to develop resistance to this approach. The concept has already been demonstrated in animal studies.