Got ideas? Gates could fund it.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded an initiative call Grand Challenges Exploration that pushes scientists and researchers to develop innovative methods to address the burden of infectious diseases in the developing world. This initiative encourages both innovation of science and delivery.
During a recent Q&A, three grantees showcased their work:
Tycho Speaker of Transderm Inc. in the United States presented work in collaboration with Juvaris Biotherapeutics. Their project tests the efficacy of a dry microneedle skin patch loaded with malaria antigens. The needles are self-blunting – the tip actually dissolves into the skin so there is no need for special disposal or concern of reuse. As it applies like a band aid, this also minimizes the need for extensive training to implement the patch. The dry design has been shown to retain potency with other vaccine regimens and so has potential to be transported even in warm conditions.
Dr. Owain Millington of the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom is working to create an optical “seek-and-destroy” system to vaccinate against skin disease caused by the Leishmania parasite, an infection that can spread to the liver and cause death. As the parasite has a tendency to hide from the immune system, the body is not able to fully clear the infection and re-infection occurs as a result. Through laser technology, this team hopes to trace and destroy the parasite. In the future they hope this will be available as a hand-held device that can be used in the field.
Dr. Juliana Cassataro of the Universidad de Buenos Aires-CONICET is working to measure immune response of mucosal surfaces in children, as mucous membrane are a site of pathogen entry into the body. Her exploration is two-pronged: she aims to develop a vaccine that will both activate the immune system as well as activate a protease inhibitor that will block the enzymes destroying the antigens at mucosal surfaces. Tests have thus far been conducted on mice with a 50% reduction in antigen degradation.
These trials are encouraging and I only hope will catalyze further collaboration and innovation. Those with ideas for future solutions have a chance to submit a proposal for funding in Round 6 of the grant. Topics are: Design New Approaches to Cure HIV Infection; Create the Next Generation of Sanitation Technologies; The Poliovirus Endgame: Create Ways to Accelerate, Sustain and Monitor Eradication; Create Low-Cost Cell Phone-Based Applications for Priority Health Conditions; Create New Technologies to Improve the Health of Mothers and Newborns.
Some questions remain: How will we integrate these efforts into the broader picture of product-development partnerships (PDPs)? How can we avoid having too many segregated efforts and incentivize collaboration to accelerate progress? How can this Gate initiative generate further interest in investing more in research and development, particularly for vaccines? Currently, several PDPs are housed under USAID, so might this encourage the US government to invest more in PDPs?
It’s been a longstanding push-pull between program and research advocates, with arguments for financial and social efficacies on both sides. I look forward to seeing what lessons can be learned from Grand Challenges and hope it will lead to more informed decision-making in the realm of research, development and the delivery of services.
For more information on this initiative, visit: www.grandchallenges.org.